January 22, 2019
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One of world’s biggest advertisers might pull ads due to ‘toxic’ online content

This photo combo of images shows, clockwise, from upper left: a Google sign, the Twitter app, YouTube TV logo and the Facebook app.

One of the world’s largest advertisers is threatening to pull its ads from social sites such as Facebook and YouTube if the tech companies don’t do more to minimize divisive content on their platforms.

Unilever’s chief marketing officer, Keith Weed, will call on Silicon Valley on Monday to better police what he describes as a toxic online environment where propaganda, hate speech and disturbing content that exploits children thrive.

“Fake news, racism, sexism, terrorists spreading messages of hate, toxic content directed at children – parts of the internet we have ended up with is a million miles from where we thought it would take us,” Weed plans to say in a speech at the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s Leadership Meeting in Palm Desert, California, according to prepared remarks. “It is in the digital media industry’s interest to listen and act on this.”

Unilever in 2017 spent nearly $9.5 billion marketing its brands, including Dove, Lipton, Axe and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. One quarter of that budget, or about $2.4 billion, was spent on digital advertising.

Weed in his prepared statement said that the company will promise to boost more “responsible content” including ads that tackle gender stereotypes; and it will only partner with digital networks that pledge to use an industry standard for ad metrics and improve consumer ad experiences. Weed said he has already begun discussions with Facebook, Google, Twitter, Amazon.com and Snap. (Amazon.com chief executive Jeff Bezos also own The Washington Post.)

“[I]t is acutely clear from the groundswell of consumer voices over recent months that people are becoming increasingly concerned about the impact of digital on wellbeing, on democracy – and on truth itself. This is not something that can brushed aside or ignored. Consumers are also demanding platforms which make a positive contribution to society.”

Google and Facebook, the two web companies that dominate online advertising have come under increased pressure from lawmakers, academics and industry critics to invest more heavily in filtering out misinformation and abusive content on their networks.

Last year, Google’s YouTube faced a vocal backlash from U.S. advertisers who said the company was not doing enough to prevent their ads from being played alongside derogatory and extremist content.

Google has since adopted changes to the YouTube platform, which draws 1.6 billion monthly users. Those changes include stricter criteria for what types of videos can receive ad dollars, and more human reviews of content.

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg announced earlier this year that the News Feed would show its 2.1 billion users more posts from their friends and family, as opposed to news organizations and brands, in an effort to generate more “meaningful” interactions. During its most recent earnings call, Zuckerberg acknowledged that Facebook users spent 50 million hours less per day on the social network than the previous quarter, in part by reducing the number of viral videos people see – a consequence of Facebook’s new push to prioritize the quality of interactions on its platform over the popularity of content.

Despite the recent pushback, Google and Facebook continue to dominate the market for online advertising. According to eMarketer’s latest estimates, the two companies are expected to claim nearly two thirds of the U.S. market share for digital ads. Google is expected to command 42 percent of the market, with Facebook at 23 percent.

“2018 is either the year of techlash, where the world turns on the tech giants – and we have seen some of this already – or the year of trust,” Weed plans to say. “The year where we collectively rebuild trust back in our systems and our society.”

Facebook said in a statement, “We fully support Unilever’s commitments and are working closely with them.” Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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