Unilever threat 'is #MeToo moment for digital advertising'

Mark Sweney
Unilever, the owner of PG Tips, has threatened to boycott Google and Facebook. Photograph: Jeff Blackler/Rex/Shutterstock

The former UK boss of one of the world’s biggest advertising groups has said that Unilever’s threat to boycott Google and Facebook could be a pivotal moment for digital advertising, likening it to the momentum of the #MeToo movement that has put a spotlight on sexual harassment and assault.

Paul Frampton, the former head of the UK division of French marketing services group Havas, said that taking the Silicon Valley giants to task over their business practices is about principles, not advertising dollars.

“There is a rising discomfort towards the digital platforms amongst marketers,” says Frampton. “Like #MeToo, it feels this is a movement that has stepped up a gear and [Unilever’s marketing chief Keith] Weed speaking out will mean other marketers will follow.

“These platforms making such giant margins must acknowledge and take much more seriously the impact they have on society and citizenship. This is as much as matter of principle than anything else.”

Last year, Frampton was responsible for pulling all of Havas UK’s digital ad spend from Google and YouTube, some £175m for clients including O2, EDF and Royal Mail. He took this step after it emerged that ads were being run around inappropriate content such as videos of American white nationalists, a hate preacher banned in the UK and a controversial Islamist preacher.

However, such displays of advertiser outrage have tended to be short-lived.

Google and Facebook account for almost 60% of the £19.7bn UK internet market, and hoover up as much as 90% of all new money coming in.

Advertisers believe they have little option but to spend with them in order to reach the digital-savvy audiences they crave to influence, which gives Google and Facebook immense power.


Unilever produces a host of well-known consumer brands.

Food and drink
• Marmite, Hellman’s, Bertolli, Knorr, Bovril, Pot Noodle, Colman’s, Flora, Stork, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter.
• PG Tips, Lyons, Lipton.
• Magnum, Ben & Jerry’s, Carte d’Or, Cornetto, Wall’s, Solero, Viennetta.

Personal hygiene
• Dove, Sure, Lynx, Axe, Impulse, Simple, Pond’s, Vaseline, Brut, Radox.
• Timotei, Toni & Guy, TRESemmé, VO5 and Brylcreem.

Laundry and cleaning
• Persil, Surf, Comfort, Cif, Domestos.


Group M, the media buying arm of Sir Martin Sorrell’s WPP, called the YouTube boycott a “pause”.

Group M found that 75% of “YouTube pausers” returned to normal spend levels quickly. “Despite all the furore we have seen no evidence suggesting their business has reversed,” said Adam Smith, futures director at Group M.

Companies such as Unilever – whose brands include Marmite, PG Tips and Vaseline – want the Silicon Valley giants to be brought to heel not only for brand protection and consumer safety issues, but before even their vast scale is not enough to allow them the advantageous deals they manage with other media owners

Unilever’s digital spending has soared 130% since 2012, while its traditional media budget has declined 10%, although traditional media still accounts for two-thirds of the total.

However, with headline-grabbing issues including MPs grilling the Silicon Valley giants publicly over issues such as fake news, traditional media companies are cautiously optimistic that a re-balancing of advertiser spend is on the cards.

With a digital budget of €2.5bn (£2.25bn) Weed has a huge carrot, and stick, to wield as unrest grows among deep-pocketed advertisers.

“With continuing issues including fake news and transparency, coupled with advertisers questioning effectiveness, brands are being more cautious about where they place advertising,” says David Dinsmore, chair of newspaper body NMA. “Brands around the world are beginning to scrutinise the content they are being seen against. It is a different world to the slightly haphazard spending that was going on only a year ago.”