How can adland help tackle hate speech in the media?
A view from Richard Wilson

How can adland help tackle hate speech in the media?

Brands are under pressure to consider the ethical implications of their marketing, writes Richard Wilson, the founder of Stop Funding Hate.

Brands need to advertise and reach their audiences in a cost-effective way. But with experts warning of a link between media coverage and hate crime, companies face growing pressure to consider the ethical implications of their marketing spend.

As sales decline, and newspapers seek to boost ad revenue with ever-more extreme coverage, the brands whose advertising funds such stories are increasingly being seen as part of the problem.

There will always be someone prepared to say something more shocking, offensive and dangerous – if it gets ad-revenue. If brands don't have policies to ensure they associate themselves with responsible journalism, there’s a danger of a downward spiral.

Stop Funding Hate hit the headlines in November when Lego announced it was ending its promotional partnership with the Daily Mail. Meanwhile the Co-op Group is reviewing their advertising policies through the "Co-op way" initiative, which aims to reconnect the company with the ethical values for which it is renowned.

But our campaign is part of a much larger story. With growing concern about fake news and the resurgence of racism, the movement for "ethical advertising" is going global.

In the US, hundreds of companies have blocked the "alt-right" website Breitbart from their online ad programmes. In Germany, some of the country’s biggest brands – including BMW, and Deutsche Telekom – have followed suit.

In Denmark, a Twitter campaign using the hashtag #StopFundingHateDK has prompted a brand exodus from the website "Den Korte Avis". Similar campaigns have run in Spain, and the Netherlands – and there’s more on the way in Australia, New Zealand and Austria.

UK media hate speech is itself becoming an international issue. When the Sun published a column comparing African migrants to "cockroaches", the UN High Commission for Human Rights put out a statement condemning "decades of sustained and unrestrained anti-foreigner abuse, misinformation and distortion" by the British press.

The same statement warned, "History has shown us time and again the dangers of demonizing foreigners and minorities... it is extraordinary to see these types of tactics being used in a variety of countries, simply because racism and xenophobia are so easy to arouse in order to win votes or sell newspapers".

When the behaviour of our press has become so extreme that it’s being called out by the UN, we know we have a problem. But what are the practical challenges for brands seeking to align their advertising partnerships with their corporate values? And how can the advertising industry help them to make that transition?

Last night I discussed some of these questions in front of an audience of agencies and brands, alongside Ella Saltmarshe, co-founder of The Comms Lab, Chris Clarke, chief creative officer, International, DigitasLBi and Nic Howell, head of strategy, UK, DigitasLBi.

Chris talked about the challenges global brands face amid accelerating change. When globalisation started, we lived in an era of consensus – companies could present an image that appealed to a wide range of different groups. But with technology driving increasing polarisation, it’s becoming harder for brands to remain on "neutral" ground.

Ella talked about the interest in Stop Funding Hate that she’d seen from advertising professionals – even though the campaign raises challenging questions for the industry.

Nic sounded a more cautious note, with examples from history of how pressurising advertisers over editorial content has been used for ill. As with all campaigning tactics, such as petitions or demonstrations, engagement with advertisers can be used for good and bad.

But the power of Stop Funding Hate is in the way that people pick up the idea and run with it. The discussion generated many suggestions for taking the campaign forward – and for ways that advertising professionals can help to make the business case.

It was a timely discussion. This week, Randall Rothenberg, US President of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, issued a rallying call to the industry, warning that "fake news is much more than a supply chain failure. It represents a moral failure, as well – one that implicates marketers, agencies, publishers, platforms, and technology companies alike".

Amid worldwide concern about the impact of hate speech and fake news, it seems that ethical advertising is an idea whose time has come.

Richard Wilson is the founder of Stop Funding Hate.