Nationwide's CMO: I worry that we are turning a blind eye to hatred and bigotry
A view from Sara Bennison

Nationwide's CMO: I worry that we are turning a blind eye to hatred and bigotry

Sara Bennison, chief marketing officer at Nationwide and one of Campaign's Power 100, asks what the right course of action is for marketers in a world where hateful language is an everyday occurrence.

"Could you write us an article about the big marketing issues of the day?" the lovely people from Campaign say. And my mind immediately swings to all those topics with which we become so familiar. Transparency.

Big data. GDPR. Customer experience. Is the age of the CMO over? Is the age of the brand over? Are we all to be replaced by machines? So many buzzwords, so many questions. And I suppose I could dutifully add my voice and perspective to one or all of those.

But I want to take this opportunity to go somewhere else. To the issue which makes me feel most deeply uncomfortable. To the thing which, whenever the buzz of the urgent or the whir of the treadmill subsides, comes to the top of my consciousness. Or should that be conscience.

It has to do with social media. But not in the way that you might think. Having a pop at social platforms has become the favoured sport of 2017. Transparency, terrorism, tax. They have it all going on. And how easy is it to cast stones and put the blame of every social ill on "them"?

My worry bead is not about "them", though. It's about "us". Specifically, "me". It's about the complicity that brands and their custodians have, in trying to protect themselves, with those who use social media to vomit out the kind of hatred and bigotry I hope I would never stand by and accept in "real life".

Every morning, my social media team have the task of removing from our Facebook and YouTube pages the offensive posts which have been left.  (As an aside, there are many lovely and totally reasonable complaining ones too and clearly there is a line to walk carefully when it comes to free speech).

With one push of the button, the revolting are deleted and no one at Nationwide or in the wider world need be any the wiser about the bile that was left there. And I mean true bile.

When we run our adverts, it is those that feature people of different colours, backgrounds and perceived sexuality, which attract the most criticism. They are the ones that appear to bring those with such huge vitriol out of the shadows, and that’s not to mention the generic and wanton threats (no matter how idle they may actually be).

My worry is this. By turning a blind eye, I become complicit. We, as an organisation, become complicit. Not to mention hypocritical when our ads talk of "the currency of kindness" and our PR narrative celebrates the diversity of voices in our marketing.

However, that is what we are doing in deleting and ignoring. We are condoning a world where hatred and bigotry is okay. A world where it is okay to threaten someone with extreme violence because they appear in an ad. Where it is okay to say things in a post which would have you arrested in a pub.

What I want to make absolutely clear is that I’m not writing this to start a witch hunt against those that have had a momentary error of judgement in their past. Instead, this is about calling out those persistent offenders who spout out vile comments on a regular basis and who should really know better.

Lest you think I am over-reacting, here are some recent examples from across a variety of social media platforms of what I mean (ironically with the identities of the posters removed to protect their identity in case of defamation!)

Example 1. Relates to another Nationwide student banking advert, this time featuring a young poet called Tyreece talking about the younger generation and how they can help shape the future.

"Stupid n****r. Go back to Africa." [Campaign added the asterisks]

Example 2. This relates to all the adverts that form part of the Voices Nationwide campaign as a whole.

"Every one of them snide poet cunts on the Nationwide adverts needs kicking to death."

Example 3. Relates to another Nationwide advert on student banking featuring a young poet called Jay talking about the emotions you feel when receiving A-Level results.

"Batty Boydem fi dead."

Example 4. Relates to the Society’s advert about current accounts where two poets (Toby and Laurie) talk about their friendship.

"Not judging like but that bloke in the Nationwide advert is definitely a hoop sniffer."

Example 5. Relates to a Nationwide advert on student banking featuring a young poet called Steve talking about cooking at university and the things you forget to take with you.

"Hard to eat a pasta bake when you’ve got a cock in your mouth."

I know from talking to other advertisers that we are not alone. (You might think we are but just check what your teams are removing before coming to that conclusion). But this can't be about safety in numbers ie. everyone is doing this so it is all OK.

If we are not alone, does anyone else have the appetite to break the silence and complicity? To say this is not okay, rather than rely on deletion where we can, or self-moderation and platform algorithms where we can't.

How we do this is where I hope this article can spark a debate. Personally, I do feel a responsibility as a "brand owner" to take a stand against the haters and say very clearly that it is not OK to throw around abuse on social media which would not be tolerated in a civil society when said to someone’s face.

After raising this with ISBA’s Digital Action Committee, they spent some time with the Met Police (who are responsible for investigating all hate crimes) to see what would help them most.

The ideal would be to establish a clear, simple route for "counterspeak" (as they term it) which does not open further dialogue with the offender. Tying up with stophateuk.org the suggestion is we do this through two responses to hate speech: #stophateuk and #reported.

There is a follow up session planned with ISBA to then work through how we could not just report offenders but collect the stats which would give us a true sense of the scale of this currently invisible problem.

My question now is what you think and will you support? Is the "currency of kindness" just a nice turn of phrase in a building society ad? Or do we all want to draw a line in the sand, make a stand against the hatred and prove that together we could achieve things which seem impossible and daunting alone?