Unilever and the struggle to find balance in advertising's moral maze

Without fear or favour, Richard J. Hillgrove VI tips the tables up on world leaders, brands and countries who all often think they can hide behind the smoke and mirrors via their communications professionals. Bang On takes a full throttle, punk approach to dissecting and analysing modern PR and marketing. It's not for the faint hearted....

Unilever logo

Everyone’s catching the censorship bug and, if we don’t watch out, it could kill our freedom of speech.

Unilever appear to be the latest company to have succumbed to the aggressive tactics of cyber eco-warriors and campaigns like #StopFundingHate.

They’ve threatened to pull ads from online platforms like the Facebook, Google and Twitter if they don’t tackle “toxic” content.

In other words, they’re willing to walk the plank before they suffer the fate of those brands already thrown overboard by online terrorists intent on clearing the internet of all things hate-filled.

Unilever CMO Keith Weed announced at the annual Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) conference in California that he was weeding out advertising from platforms that “do not make a positive contribution to society”.

But what exactly constitutes a positive contribution to society? And who decides?

The lines are in danger of blurring now between hate speech, which is legislated against, and differing opinions and tastes, which call for moral or personal judgement.

The big dilemma is whether to stifle extreme viewpoints or allow the market to self-regulate and balance itself out. That’s what the freedom of speech movement would advocate - take a laissez-faire approach, live and let live.

Of course, the law already covers hate speech and outlaws it. But now online censorship aims to cleanse extreme viewpoints before they even get a chance to be hung out on the clothesline of public opinion. It smacks of political censorship.

Ann Widdecombe’s puritanical views are shocking to some. In 2011, she revealed she was opposed to Sir Elton John’s gay marriage and baby. Pressed by Piers Morgan for her views she replied: “I would rather that would not happen.”

The former Tory minister had earlier been hailed a gay icon after her stint on BBC1’s Strictly Come Dancing, but did the British public turn their backs on her? Not really.

She was praised for her brutal honesty and respected for having an opinion of her own. Just a few weeks ago, despite her strong stance against gay rights, she came second on Celebrity Big Brother, a major social arbiter of our times.

The Ann Widdecombes of this world face becoming an endangered species stamped out to extinction in an increasingly homogenous world, devoid of the broad range of viewpoints that might spark any emotional triggers.

We’re editing out all the high and low notes, opting instead for tone-deaf monotone.

Ironically, content in the digital sphere relies 100% on big emotions. That’s the currency. Anger or rage spark a phenomenal amount of sharing, as does anything positive, warm and fluffy. Think of those cute cat images that have typically topped the viral charts.

A New York Times Wharton Business School study found that stories were more likely to go viral if they either triggered a very strong negative emotion such as anger or anxiety or, on the flip side, a very positive emotion such as awe, interest or surprise.

It’s all about creating sharp and dramatic contrasts. At what point will content be deemed ‘too much’ or ‘too over the top’ by social media’s community standards police? What a dangerously bland world we could be about to live in.

According to social media visionary Oliver Luckett, who wrote the ground-breaking book The Social Organism with Michael J. Casey, “censorship ultimately constrains the social organism’s growth”.

He believes: “Social media facilitates a movement towards inclusion - but precisely because it compels us to pay witness to conflict in our midst.”

Essentially, our social immune system is strengthened by exposure to antisocial communication, just as our body’s immune system needs exposure to germs and viruses to grow strong.

According to Luckett: “To eradicate hate we need to constructively boost empathy and inclusion, not censor it.”

He believes that, ultimately, positivity outweighs fear. “What works is optimal, positive, emotional resonance.”

Luckett, who co-founded theAudience with Facebook’s first president Sean Parker and worked as the head of innovation at Disney, says: “The best way for the social organism to beat back pathogens of hate and violence is to confront them. Our shared social immune system can quash them with an antidote of love and compassion.”

Take the recent example of Centerparcs and their knee-jerk reaction to comments in the Daily Mail.

Columnist Richard Littlejohn mocked the Olympic diver Tom Daley and his partner Dustin Lance Black’s announcement that they’re having a child with a surrogate mother. Littlejohn’s comment, screaming from the headline, was: "Please don’t pretend two dads is the new normal”.

In response to a complaint on Twitter, Centreparcs immediately tweeted they would stop advertising in the Daily Mail. But maybe they’d have done us all a favour if they’d just grinned and borne it instead.

They weren’t the only ones to act. Stop Funding Hate called out a bunch of other brands that advertise in the Mail. The South Bank Centre responded by saying they had no plans in place to advertise with them in future.

AutoTrader issued a statement saying: “Thank you for pointing this case out to us – our digital advertising team is investigating as we speak.”

And Natwest tweeted: “We take this issue extremely seriously. This is not content sponsored by us. Our ads are served up through a third party and we are investigating why they have appeared here.”

The deafening noise of the pack preaching moral condemnation is the critical issue here. While the tail is wagging the dog, brands feel powerless to stand up to militant consumers. It’s difficult to find any balance, hear dissenting views, over the din of hounds baying for blood. And that can only be to all our detriment.

Bang On to Richard on email richard.hillgrove@6hillgrove.com and Twitter @6hillgrove

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