In light of Keith Weed’s recent speech, I delve into the controversial topic of responsibility in digital advertising. Where should responsibility sit, and how can we determine appropriateness?
I’m Joanne South, I’m a Client Strategy Director here at RocketMill, and my presentation today is called: “Do the right thing”.
This is actually off the back of a statement made by the Chief Marketing Officer of Unilever, in February, at IAB’s annual international conference. There’s been a lot of press coverage around this, a lot of glamorous looking headlines, and it really got me thinking about a lot of the implications and what this means for marketers, so I wanted to talk through what the speech was, some of the implications, and were my thinking got to with it as well.
Before we start, the first thing I wanted to ask everyone was, this statement of, “do the right thing”. Who or what does it make you think of? Silence. It’s actually Alphabet’s slogan. Or, for layman’s terms, it’s Google’s. So, when they created the parent group, they dispensed with: “don’t be evil,” and they changed it to “do the right thing”.
How about: “bring the world closer together”?
Correct, thank you. So, you got the swing of this now, isn’t it? It’s Facebook.
It’s really interesting. There’s a huge amount that says in terms of what they want to represent as an employer brand, what that relationship is going to be with consumers, as well, and there’s also, exactly as you said, Alex, a great deal of social morality being claimed within these couple of statements as well.
So, headlines like this, where they are referred to as “toxic platforms” and “breeding division” probably don’t go down very well. It does rather attack the brand DNA, to put it mildly. So, these are headlines that have all been sparked off as a result of this man.
So this is the Chief Marketing Officer of Unilever, Keith Weed, who, as I say, gave a speech at IAB’s annual conference, in California, where he was certainly not particularly complimentary about either Facebook or Google in this.
What is this actually all about? Given he spent a lot of time obviously crafting his speech, I’ve stolen a couple of quotes from it, to help explain, so: “The wider impact of digital on our society, and the swamp that is the digital supply chain has become a consumer issue…It is in the digital media’s interest to listen and act upon this, before viewers stop viewing, advertisers stop advertising, and publishers stop publishing.”
He goes on to talk about a huge range of different things, from, consumers don’t care about ad fraud, but they do care about the data about being misused, or stolen. They do care about where they see their brands being placed next to ads funding terror. They don’t care about sophisticated data usage or targeted, via clever algorithms, but they do care about seeing the same ad 100 times a day. Not particularly, as I said, about this, as well.
So why does all of this actually matter at all, that, the fact that Unilever have come out and basically attacked a lot of the digital platforms, not exclusively, Google and Facebook?
Well, there’s $2.5 billion worth of reasons – this is Unilever’s global digital spend last year. That is a big number, to have one of your customers – if you’re Google or Facebook – attacking you with, basically.
So, the total advertising spend was $9.5 billion, making it the second largest global spender last year, followed only after P&G, and £13 million was spent in the UK, as well.
In the same way that consumers don’t want to associate themselves with brands that don’t align up with their values, Unilever are effectively doing the same thing. They have values around integrity, positive impact, continuous commitment, and working with others. That doesn’t sit well with what they are seeing across platforms, such as Google and Facebook.
As you can imagine, commentators have had a field day with this, and views are very polarised, with everything from: “this is a MeToo moment that’s going to fundamentally revolutionise the way these digital platforms are going to work”, to: “it’s absolutely futile why Unilever said anything”, and everything in between. But it really sparked my thinking, as I said, from a pure marketing perspective around what this actually means, and some of the issues that were brought out from this speech.
But there were three things, in particular, I wanted to focus on. The first of these is responsibility. Second is appropriateness, and the third is around consumers.
So, to touch on around responsibility, to start with. Firstly, what are Google and Facebook? Are they a glorified algorithm? Are they intermediaries? Are they technology providers, content platforms, or indeed, curators of content?
The definition of these companies really matter, when it comes to responsibility, and how much control they have over the issues that Keith Weed was talking about. And how they view themselves, versus how consumers view them, and how brands view them, are probably all going to differ slightly, and therefore, you get very blurred lines around issues around responsibility.
I think Uber is a really good analogy here, because, actually, a lot of the fighting and the legal issues that have been going on at the moment is about how Uber view themselves, versus how everyone else is viewing them at the moment. That they, Uber, view themselves as pipes that enable things to happen; everyone else is viewing them as a transportation system.
Effectively, Google and Facebook don’t have editorial control over what is on their platforms and on their systems. They are an algorithm and an intermediary is how they are operating at the moment, certainly. So where does that leave us, in terms of responsibility?
Well, actually, brands have a huge amount of responsibility when it comes to this. They are making the decisions around their media strategies about who they’re targeting, how they’re targeting, and in what context, and with what budgets, and in what way they are targeting these people as well.
You have campaigns, such as Stop Fronting Hate, who are very clear that they view it as the brand’s responsibility about where they are doing their advertising, and where they’re implementing their marketing strategies. That’s obviously in relation to newspapers, but it’s a similar principle that they’re aimed at the brands, not at the newspaper, specifically, within it. And also, fundamentally, consumers have the relationship with the brand, not with Google and Facebook, as well.
So, critically, where my thinking is, that an algorithm, in of itself, isn’t moral, and can’t be moral. It’s about the decisions that people make around it, in terms of the brands and their marketing strategies.
If we want these platforms to move from being an intermediary, to making editorial judgments, are Google and Facebook the right organisations to be doing that? They’re certainly not set up to do so, at the moment, but also, that actually slightly scares me about them making those sorts of decisions, because it opens up a whole can of worms around freedom of speech, as well.
So, the second area that he got me thinking about was around this concept of appropriateness, and just before I start on this, I just want to say, that I think there’s a bucket of content we can probably all say, is probably not appropriate. Things that are abusive, things that are extremely violent, fake news, disinformation; I think most people probably recognise that as not appropriate content, and that needs to be managed in its own way.
But what about everything else, which is the vast majority of the content online? Actually, it’s all a shade of grey. It’s very much a personal thing around what you feel is appropriate, based on that particular moment in time; your context, your experiences, your choices, your beliefs, is such a personal thing, that actually what’s appropriate for me isn’t necessarily appropriate for you.
To illustrate this, I’ve got four bits of marketing, and I want people’s view as to whether it’s appropriate or not.
The first was Greggs’ Christmas campaign, where they replaced the baby Jesus with a sausage roll. Is this appropriate or inappropriate?
Well, Greggs pulled this advert, and offered an apology, so you can see, whether you think that’s appropriate or not.
The second one, this is Yves Saint Laurent’s Black Opium Perfume advert. Now, you may not remember this advert. I suspect the male contingent in the room may not instantly recall what happened in this advert, but basically, a man steals her perfume, she runs through Shanghai to try and find it, she retrieves it, sprays herself, and gets very excited and pleased that she’s covered in her perfume at the end. Appropriate or inappropriate?
It actually was investigated for glamorising drug use.
So, this is Beats’ Pill product, which was advertised with Robin Thicke and his song, Blurred Lines. Appropriate or inappropriate?
Personally, I’ve never seen an advert that has made me so angry, as this one did, but, anyway, but it is a personal thing. I get that.
Then the last one is Kendall Jenner, and the Pepsi advert. Appropriate or inappropriate?
Yeah. So, this, they pulled it after a lot of complaints around appropriation of the Black Lives Matter campaign.
So, what this really, I think, draws our attention to is, what is appropriate marketing for one audience is not appropriate for someone else. It’s also very much about the context in that particular moment, around what is and isn’t appropriate, even for that audience, as well. And particularly when other people may be exposed to it, you’re going to perhaps get a bit of tension drawing up, a well.
What this all really boiled down to, when I got to thinking about it, is the fact that consumers fundamentally sit at the bottom of all this stuff.
So, to use Keith Weed’s phrase: “before viewers stop viewing,” actually, consumers have the power – a lot of power within this – as well. Our media strategies ought to be targeting individuals to create personalised experiences, based on their preferences, their consumer habits, rather than purely relying on an algorithm to make contextually relevant decisions, or for you to be buying advertising on a site because your audience may or may not consume that particular magazine’s content.
It’s very much about creating personalised experiences, and those options are there. There are also a huge number of controls that are available within these platforms and decisions, as well. There is no reason why somebody has to see an advert 100 times a day. Those controls are in place. If brands and their media agencies aren’t switching these on, then that is a decision that they are making, for whatever reason.
I think, also, with GDPR, I think another it throws another curve ball into this situation, as well, because it very much puts consumers in the driving seat, around what information they share and they use, to make those targeting options, as well.
So where does this leave us all as marketeers? I think the main thing, for me, is that this isn’t a watershed moment. I don’t believe that this is a “MeToo” moment for the industry; that everything’s suddenly changed, as a result of Unilever’s statement, and there’s a couple of main reasons for that.
The first is, this $2.5 billion, it sounds like a lot of money. I would love to have that in my bank, but I don’t, but when Google and Facebook are talking about a combined ad revenue last year of $100 billion, that’s quite small fry, and it’s quite easy to play top trumps, to be honest.
So, $4.3 billion is the Priceline Group’s digital spend from last year. So that’s booking.com, Kayak, amongst many others, as well. So actually, although Unilever are a market leader, they are influential, generally. In terms of the ad revenue for Google and Facebook, they haven’t got as big an influence as we might think they do.
The other thing is that, fundamentally, a lot of these platforms have a monopoly on the market. There aren’t many people who don’t need Google to reach their customers, fundamentally, and whilst there isn’t that much competition in the market, they can sort of do what they like, within a certain extent.
There was an interesting study that Group M did, looking at what they refer to as YouTube pauses last year, so, where people had complained, and had pulled their spend back on YouTube, and actually, 75% of them within a couple of months had returned to their pre-complaining levels, if you like, within this. So, there’s an element that’s quite ringing true. People may say they don’t like it, but are still carrying on with it, at the same time.
However, where I do think there is an important change that Keith Weed does flag in his speech, is around this consumer piece, that, audiences and media strategies to target those audiences that are deployed by brands and their agencies really need to be, probably have much greater ownership of, much more thoroughly thought through, the controls better put in place, or better understanding of audiences.
That isn’t meaning: “This guy is called Graham, he’s 20 years old, he likes X, Y and Z”. I mean, having real empathy for your audience, and actually understanding what is appropriate for them, as well, and then having ownership about the decisions that are made, in terms of that targeting, to make sure it’s a truly relevant experience. And appropriate for that audience, as well, so it’s authentic, fundamentally within that, as well.
So, in terms of how we move this forward, I think that, in terms of being able to “improve the digital supply chain,” to use Weed’s words again, on this one, it’s about ownership, it’s about transparency, and it, rather than Google or Facebook’s slogans, I would suggest a slight adaptation of those, if you like.
That, instead, that we should work by the principles of do the right thing, for your audience and your consumers, and bring you and your audiences’ worlds closer together.
Thank you very much.