Last month, the issue of just who is responsible for ensuring ads don't appear next to unsavoury, illegal or misleading content reared its head once more after brands were found to be inadvertently funding climate change denial videos. Now, former Unliever chief marketing officer Keith Weed has issued a stark reminder that the onus is on marketers to know exactly where their content is appearing.
“Any brand should have a risk matrix,” Weed told The Drum at the Ad Association's Lead conference last week, where he underscored his belief that brands need to build internal units to identify risks to consumers, society and their own businesses. Once such capabilities are established, he argued, the "worst thing" marketers can do is to ignore these threats.
Weed, who is president of the Ad Association, said he was encouraged to see brands building this into their architecture following the big "brands funding terror" expose in 2017.
In January this year, however, advertisers including L’Oréal were faced with a scandal of a similar ilk after their content was found to be propping up creators on YouTube who denied climate change.
Other major brands including Samsung, Warner Bros and Danone were caught up in the controversy after data from research firm Avaaz found their ads had appeared next to a host of climate change videos.
The findings suggested that 16% of the top 100 related videos for the search term ‘global warming’ contained misinformation. The top 10 videos had averaged one million views each.
The report not only highlighted a new, thorny challenge for brands in a world where their role in protecting the environment is increasingly under scrutiny. But it also raised questions about which party is responsible for defining – and firefighting – this type of misinformation.
Though some policy areas are easier to define, and therefore police than others, climate change content is a far murkier area: it's a topic that even the world's most informed scientists often fail to agree on. Against this landscape, trade bodies including the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) are currently navigating the issue of nailing down a consensus on what constitutes "harmful" content online.
However, though brands were caught up in Avaaz's study, the response from budget-holders was considerably more measured than it has been previously. There was no big freeze on ad spend as there was in 2017, highlighting how much the market has matured.
A need for 'greater clarity'
Weed agreed that brands, and their agencies, were “getting wiser” when it came to brand safety, but by the same token said he had a “tremendous empathy” with the digital platforms trying to police unsavoury content.
He stressed that there are “two sides to the debate” and admitted areas such as the debate around climate change needed “greater clarity".
While some corners of the industry have called upon watchdog bodies like the Advertising Standard Authority to step up and police this misinformation, Weed argued that it is the responsibility of brands to "keep a close eye on where their advertising lands and indeed, what their advertising funds".
He blamed the overeagerness upon which the advertising industry latched onto programmatic buying for the current situation. “If you hand over responsibility to a machine, it will hunt down the lowest costs for engagement," he said.
He advised that brand owners must take responsibility on how they can use current tools to place their ads and "even if it means they have to pay a little bit more premium than the cheapest option, which might not be a desirable environment.”
He warned against brands that don’t have internal media expertise and stressed the importance of "an in-house media team to steer them in their fast-changing, complex world.”
After exiting Unilever's top marketing job in 2019, Weed took up the mantle of president at the Ad Association. Here, he has presided over the launch of Climate Action Group, with members including other trade bodies, advertising agencies, brands and media owners. The initiative has been set up as a way for it to coordinate the industry efforts to take action against climate change.
Environmentalism was a big focus for Weed when he stepped into the CMO job at Unilever 10 years ago. His role at the FMCG giant went beyond marketing and included sustainable business functions. Indeed, one of his first moves was to shut down Unilever’s CSR department and embed it into the marketing function.
This led to the launch of Project Sunlight in 2013, a sustainability programme by which the business sought to “inspire people to look at the possibilities of a world where everyone lives well and within the natural limits of the planet”.
Since then, Unilever’s sustainable brands have become the fastest-growing part of its business, and it has committed to reduce the weight of all packaging by one third and half the waste associated with the disposal of its products by 2020 among other goals.
Weed's former remit means he is well aware of the material role brands have to play in combating climate change.
“We need to put a spotlight on materiality,” he explained.
If brands take small, insignificant actions they will "quite rightly" be exposed for "greenwashing". This, Weed argued, introduces a new risk to the "matrix".
Instead, brands should “support the materiality of the impact on the climate, not just one interesting project in one interesting country."
Weed finished: "We need mainstream sustainability."
To send Keith a question that may help your own marketing plans, contact him via: firstname.lastname@example.org and you may see his advice in an upcoming issue of The Drum magazine.