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Media Planning and Buying Media Brand Safety

Conscious Advertising Network responds to claims it is leading a media boycott

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By Ellen Ormesher, Senior Reporter

August 23, 2023 | 8 min read

The advertising coalition says accusations from Tory backbenchers that it threatens the freedom of speech amount to a “smear campaign.”

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Can's co-founder tells The Drum it has been the victim of a 'smear campaign'

The Conscious Advertising Network (Can) says it is formulating plans for the future after 46 Conservative MPs signed a letter to the UK prime minister, Rishi Sunak, demanding state intervention against the network, accusing it of leading a media boycott of certain news outlets.

The signatories, which include former prime minister Liz Truss, former party leader Iain Duncan Smith, former home secretary Priti Patel and several members of the right-wing Common Sense Group, assert that Can “poses a threat to freedom of speech and media plurality in this country” due to its associations with the campaign group Stop Funding Hate, which encourages companies to pull advertising from publications that spread hate and division.

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Can, which came under fire in June after revelations it received funding from the Quadrature Climate Foundation, which has been linked to $170m stakes in fossil fuels, contributed to a recent government consultation on online advertising and the letter called for Sunak to ensure “its politically motivated activists are kept well away from government policy.”

Co-founder Jake Dubbins was an unpaid advisor to Stop Funding Hate and that group was one of the 24 institutions that helped draft Can’s initial manifestos on hate speech, disinformation, children’s wellbeing, ad fraud, informed consent and DE&I.

However, Can co-founder Harriet Kingaby tells The Drum that since then, its remit has expanded alongside societal understanding of those topics. “We have had a lot of conversations about hate speech and freedom of expression and we went to the UN as part of our research.”

Kingaby explains that Can’s position draws on the UN’s Rabat plan of action and that it signposts its definitions of mis- and disinformation, which have been developed by experts. It encourages advertisers to look at media placement through the lens of their own brand values.

She also denies that Can has ever called on members to boycott a channel or platform. “We have seven manifestos that members sign up to and then they can make commercial decisions that are driven through the lens of their brand values and what ads they want to appear next to and in what content.

“Those brands make commercial decisions about the trustworthiness of particular channels based on very good commercial data.”

In the letter, the MPs write that Can “intimidates and bullies companies into boycotting news outlets” and this is having a “chilling effect on free speech and media plurality”.

“As more and more companies feel that they have no choice but to bend the knee to CAN activists, we will be left with a media that does not reflect the diversity of views of modern Britain,” it continues.

Kingaby is resolute that the letter constitutes “a smear campaign,” telling The Drum: “There has been a huge misrepresentation of what we do, who our people are and what we stand for.”

She maintains that Can was set up to break the economic link between advertising and harmful content: “We have done everything in our power to make sure we draw on the work being done by the UN, that we take advice from a wide range of sources and that everything we do is robust.”

While making clear she would not want to speak on behalf of Can’s members overall, Kingaby says: “Everyone has been incredibly supportive and very positive about what we are trying to do.”

She adds that Can has been as transparent with its members as possible and has done its best to alleviate any concerns.

In addition to its criticism of Can, the letter from backbenchers also accuses the UK’s major holding companies of engaging in an opt-out policy of “certain Ofcom-regulated TV channels,” which it says constituted an effective boycott.

The Drum approached some of Can’s members, including the holding companies WPP, Publicis, Dentsu, Omnicom and Interpublic, for comment on the criticism leveled at them as well as their membership status. WPP declined to comment while Dentsu confirmed that it remains a member, with a spokesperson adding for the record that it “does not operate an ’opt-out policy.’”

The spokesperson added: “We propose marketing channels on the basis of the client’s target audience and objectives. Dentsu does not take any political stance on the proposals we make and we only act in the best interests of the client, their objectives and the media industry as a whole. It is ultimately the client’s money and they have the freedom to spend where it is best for their brand and their business.”

The Drum had not received a response from Publicis, Omnicom or Interpublic at the time of publication. However, in a statement released by the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA), director general Paul Bainsford commented that it dismissed claims by MPs that some agencies are boycotting any of the channels in question.

He wrote: “Advertising agencies work closely on a case-by-case basis with individual clients to agree the media plans for advertising campaigns. Advertisers are perfectly entitled to advertise wherever they wish within legal advertising channels. There is no collective boycott of any Ofcom-regulated channel.”

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Moving forward, Kingaby says Can is currently exploring all its options regarding legal representation (“When an organization is under attack like this, we need to know our rights”) and that it will be formulating a plan for the future alongside its 180 members.

“Our members are not the first advertising organizations to come under attack in this way and we see it as a disturbing trend. The commercial freedom of advertisers is important to protect.”

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