Can Unilever Fix What's Wrong with the Web? I Doubt It

Feb 15, 2018

Article ImageYou've probably heard the news by now: Unilever is threatening to pull its significant spending power out of the digital advertising marketplace if ad platforms don't clean up their acts. Keith Weed, chief marketing officer of Unilever, told the audience at IAB's Leadership Conference that Unilever no longer intended to support companies that hosted "toxic online content", failed to protect children from objectionable content, or "create division in society" (which is vague, to say the least). Unilever's estimated $9 billion ad budget holds a lot of sway, but the reality is, Google and Facebook are already working on these problems, and it's a fine line between cultivating a more positive, responsible platform and infringing on users' rights. 

This isn't the first time in recent memory that advertisers have put their money where their mouths are. Last year's "Adpocalypse" at YouTube saw brands bailing on one of the most popular sites on the web. In that case, advertisers made a public display of leaving YouTube after suddenly realizing their ads might be appearing on videos uploaded by extremists. As Nancy Davis Kho reported for EContent, "Over the course of a few weeks in March 2017—after an article in The Times highlighted instances in which U.K.-government funded advertisements appeared on YouTube alongside videos extolling rape, anti-Semitism, and terrorism—one major advertiser after another began pulling its advertisements off the platform." 

Unilever is, essentially, threatening to do the same if Facebook and Google don't find a way to keep the company's ads away from the objectionable content. Of course, Unilever is only the latest critic of these web giants. Since the U.S. Presidential election in 2016, everyone from users to Congress has been calling Facebook, and, to a lesser extent, Google on the carpet to answer questions about "fake news." Facebook has already announced the elimination of so-called "dark posts", and changes to the newsfeed that would prioritize the posts of friends and family over brands. (No word on how Facebook will keep your uncle from posting hateful rants, and sharing fake news.) Facebook, Google, and Twitter announced they would be using "trust indicators" to fight fake news, and Google has floated multiple ideas about how it might help aid in the fight against misinformation

But all of this is just chipping around the edges of the real problem. The corners of the internet most of us frequent every day are filled with user-generated content. In fact, the business model that YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and by extension, Google, rely on depends on you and I regularly updating our statuses, uploading videos, and sharing links. But that business doesn't--and, maybe, can't--distinguish between those of us who share NPR stories and upload videos of our cats, and those of us who share Infowars stories and upload vitriolic hate videos. The democratization of the web that allowed anyone to create a website and share their thoughts, means that literally anyone--no matter how dangerous or subversive--can spread their message. 

The problem goes beyond the popular social media sites. Recently, I found myself explaining to someone why it might be harder than she thought for Amazon to stop advertising on Breitbart. I had to find a way to make her understand programmatic advertising and retargeting. I'm not sure I succeeded, but I told her I thought a better way to really strike a blow to sites like Breitbart is to get them dropped from ad networks. That got me thinking about Digital Content Next's TrustX, a premium digital advertising marketplace launched in 2016 as a public benefit corporation and focused on tackling ad fraud. DCN is already experimenting with limiting its network of sites to trusted, premium publishers, a model that might intrigue advertisers who want to make sure their ads don't end up alongside offensive content. Taking away the profit motive for sites like Breitbart or Infowars can go a long way toward putting that particular kind of propaganda out of business. But let's be honest, a new company would pop up to fill the gap if ad networks stopped dealing with these kinds of sites. 

The problem is more complicated than Unilever is making it sound. The bigger and more diverse the web gets, the harder it is going to be to distance ourselves and our brands from the kinds of content we find abhorrent. I'm not sure the web is fixable as long as people and profit are the center of it.

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Grayson Kemper is senior content developer for Clutch, a B2B research and reviews firm based in Washington, DC. Clutch and Ignite Visibility published a joint research report titled "How Organic and Paid Search Inform SEO Strategy." The report examines trends and the state of SEO among U.S. businesses in 2018. I interviewed Kemper about the report's findings and what it means for the future of SEO marketing.