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Unilever Threatens to Pull Ads if Tech Platforms Don’t Clean Up ‘Toxic Content’

Image Credit: Giles Lambert

In a bid to build trust into our systems and society, Unilever has announced a new commitment to cut investment in platforms that breed division in society — and is challenging the rest of the industry to do the same.

In his keynote speech at the IAB Annual Leadership Meeting in Palm Desert, Calif., Keith Weed, Unilever’s CMO, demanded the industry work together to improve transparency and rebuild consumer trust in an era of fake news and toxic online content.

“Social media should build social responsibility,” Weed said. “It’s time to change the conversation.”

Weed called out the likes of Google, YouTube, Facebook, Amazon and other tech platforms for not doing enough to ensure the safety of brands and customers in their advertising practices. Failing to do so has prompted a dramatic shift in the public’s trust of the media — social media, in particular. Only 30 percent of people in the US now trust social media, while almost two-thirds (58 percent) trust traditional media.

“Fake news, racism, sexism, terrorists spreading messages of hate, toxic content directed at children… It is in the digital media industry’s interest to listen and act on this,” he said.

Unilever is one of the world’s largest digital advertisers. In 2017 alone, the company spent $9.4 billion on marketing, over one-quarter of which was dedicated to digital advertising. This puts the company in a strategic position to drive industry-wide change — an opportunity it intends to seize.

For Unilever’s digital supply chain, this translates to delivering three key things: responsible platforms, responsible content and responsible infrastructure.

  • Responsible Platforms: Unilever will not invest in platforms or environments that do not protect children, create division in society and promote anger or hate.
  • Responsible Content: Unilever will create responsible content, initially by tackling gender stereotypes in advertising through #Unstereotype and encouraging other industry leaders to do the same through the #Unstereotype Alliance.
  • Responsible Infrastructure: Unilever will only partner with organizations that are committed to creating better digital infrastructure, such as aligning around one measurement system and improving the consumer experience.

The new commitments build on Unilever’s existing efforts to build a sustainable supply chain. Weed acknowledged that while the company has worked diligently to integrate sustainability into its business, it cannot truly make its supply chains sustainable unless it addresses the issues rooted deeply in its digital supply chain.

“Just because one is physical and one is virtual, they are still absolutely part of our value chain. And we cannot continue to prop up a digital supply chain…which at times is little better than a swamp in terms of its transparency,” Weed said.

Much in the same way they are increasingly expected to address the environmental impacts of their operations or products, businesses have an important role to play in resolving these trust issues that now threaten to ‘undermine the relationship between consumers and brands.’ And to do so would be in their best interest. Weed warns that if brands fail to act, they could face catastrophic “techlash.”

“So, we must ask ourselves — what do brands stand for in the 21st century? To remain relevant, and trusted by consumers, brands have to take the lead.”


Launched in 2006, Sustainable Brands has become a global learning, collaboration, and commerce community of forward-thinking business and brand strategy, marketing, innovation and sustainability professionals who are leading the way to a better future. We recognize that brands today have… [Read more about Sustainable Brands]


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