ReUnited Kingdoms #9: Uniting against hate

Shifting the emphasis to the future

As lockdown restrictions continue to ease, as businesses reopen and as we collectively start to think about the future, our “ReUnited Kingdoms” content series has been exploring various aspects of life beyond lockdown. In this piece we look at how the COVID crisis is enabling a focused discussion around hate speech, political correctness, and misinformation and how brands are collaborating to force change within social media platforms.


Over recent days, a growing number of international brands have joined the global ad boycott campaign ‘Stop Hate for Profit’ which was started by several US-based civil rights groups earlier this month. In the words of the campaigners:


We are asking all businesses to stand in solidarity with our most deeply held American values of freedom, equality and justice and not advertise on Facebook’s services in July.

At the time of writing some 100 brands, including some of marketing’s biggest names have signed up to the campaign. They range across sectors and include the likes of: Adidas, Beam Suntory, Ben & Jerry’s, Coca-Cola, Colgate-Palmolive, Denny’s, Diageo, Ford, Hershey’s, Honda, Levi’s, lululemon, Patagonia, Reebok, SAP, Starbucks, The North Face, Verizon, VW and Unilever.

Lululemon: “We stand in solidarity with the @NAACP, @ADL and others in the #StopHateForProfit campaign. We believe we all have a responsibility to create a truly inclusive society and are actively engaging with @Facebook to seek meaningful change.”

Unilever: “We have taken the decision to stop advertising on @Facebook, @Instagram & @Twitter in the US. The polarized atmosphere places an increased responsibility on brands to build a trusted & safe digital ecosystem. Our action starts now until the end of 2020.”

Coca-Cola: “Hate has no place in this world. We’re going to pause posting in an effort to stop hateful content on social platforms. Together We Must.”

NAACP: “It is clear that Facebook and its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, are no longer simply negligent, but in fact, complacent in the spread of misinformation, despite the irreversible damage to our democracy…”

Ben & Jerry’s: “We will pause all paid advertising on Facebook and Instagram in the US in support of the #StopHateForProfit campaign. Facebook, Inc. must take the clear and unequivocal actions to stop its platform from being used to spread and amplify racism and hate.”

An idea whose time has come?

Campaigns and boycotts of media platforms perceived to propagate hate and division are not new. The Stop Funding Hate social media campaign started by Richard Wilson in 2016 aimed in its words “to stop companies from advertising in, and thus providing funds for, certain British newspapers that use fear and division to sell more papers” and is still ongoing.

Arguably, what is new is the culture within which such campaigns operate has changed, enabling the campaigns to generate more voice and forcing brands to pay more attention to those voices. The #BlackLivesMatter campaign has massively energised the discussion around respect, tolerance, diversity and equality and shone a light onto a whole spectrum of both historical (#statuesmustfall) and topical discussions.

Why are brands responding?

The (admittedly somewhat cynical) question arises as to whether the brands that are participating in such boycotts and campaigns are doing so out of a sense of moral duty, or to protect their balance sheets.

Certainly, there is a significant body of evidence that suggests that people are concerned about the issue, have often experienced it themselves, agree that online social hate can often be a precursor to more aggressive physical actions and support brands for getting involved:

  • 71% of people from ethnic minorities now report racial discrimination, compared with just over half (58%) before the EU vote.
  • The proportion of people from an ethnic minority who said they had been targeted by a stranger rose from 64% in January 2016 to 76% in February 2019.
  • Racism is rising on social media. Whereas, at the end of 2016, 37% of people saw racism on social media on a day-to-day basis, that has now risen to 50% and there were rises of about 50% in the number or people reporting hearing people ranting or making negative comments about immigration or making racist comments made to sound like jokes.
  • Violence attributed to online hate speech has increased worldwide – some 59% of Americans believe that online hate and harassment make hate crimes more common.
  • According to the Hansard Society, some 35% of UK consumers have boycotted certain products for political, ethical or environmental reasons (11%) or would be prepared to boycott if felt strongly enough about an issue (24%).

Brands are responding to this issue both because they feel it is right to do so and because they know it is an issue for their customers. Ultimately, their prime motivation for taking part doesn’t really matter, the key thing is that they are taking part and the more that do so, the greater the chances of change.

Will it work?

The aim of the boycott is twofold: one, to raise awareness for the issue of hate speech, and secondly by means of bringing financial pressures to bear on social media companies to force them to introduce and enforce stricter policies around the content they allow to be published on their platforms.

Revenue-wise, there is clearly a huge amount at stake here. Facebook generated $69.7 billion from advertising in 2019, which represented more than 98% of its total revenue for the year.

However, while many of the companies that have jumped onto the boycott are big household names, they aren’t the platforms biggest payers. Some of Facebook’s biggest individual advertisers, including Walmart, Disney and Procter & Gamble, have not (yet) joined the boycott.

Furthermore, most of Facebook’s ad dollars don’t actually come from companies like Starbucks and Coca Cola so much as the long tail of small and medium-sized businesses who use Facebook to attract customers and build their brands. Of Facebook’s eight million or so advertisers, the highest-spending 100 brands accounted for only $4.2 billion (or only about 6%) of the platform’s ad revenue last year. Losing these brands totally would no doubt be very painful but not terminal.

And that’s even if they do lose these brands long-term. The campaign pledge is only to stop advertising on Facebook during July. While some will continue their boycott, if necessary, beyond that point (indeed Unilever have already said they won’t come back until 2021 at the earliest), it is possible that others may not. In sum, many analysts feel that it will take a lot more action than has been seen so far really hurt Facebook financially.

But that is not to say that the campaign has not been or will not be effective. The big-name dropouts definitely represent something of a PR disaster for Facebook. Moreover, they have dented Facebook’s stock price and prompted leadership to address some of the concerns. In what may turn into a back-and-forth dialogue, Facebook’s first concession has been to agree to label offending posts, following on from Twitter’s decision last month to label tweets that it identified as being “potentially misleading or which glorify violence”, with some of President Trump’s output being so flagged, much to his consternation.

Whether these actions by Facebook and Twitter meet the demands of the #StopHateForProfit campaign as a whole or for individual advertisers remains to be seen.

To join or not to join

The choice for brands is straightforward, but hugely significant – does this boycott align with your brand purpose and corporate responsibility, is it a cause you actively want to support?

If the answer is yes, we believe you should consider suspending paid activity on Facebook and Instagram and extend this further to all social platforms. Of course, joining in implies more than just signing a pledge. There are a whole host of issues to think about. For example, does pulling your advertising from Facebook mean you should also avoid posting other forms of content there too? The boycott calls for a month of action but what will you do at the end of that time and how will that vary depending on whether the campaign has achieved all of its stated aims? How will you communicate your period of social silence to your audience? How will you continue to make your voice heard during this period, particularly if you don’t have the budget to stretch into more expensive channels?

If, on the other side of the coin, you do not think that this campaign aligns with your current business priorities, then we would recommend continuing as normal, whilst continuing to monitor the global reaction, before making any further decisions. Again, there are things to consider, such as being ready to explain to the curious why you are not participating, and what else you are doing to prioritise issues of diversity and inclusion within your business.

Our colleagues at TMW Unlimited have been advising their clients on how to decide whether to join the boycott or not, and identified some of the pitfalls to avoid in following either of these approaches (link).

It’s not just about social media

Social media represents not just a paid content platform for brands. It is, of course, also a platform for them to post thoughts, run communities and deliver customer service.

Brands participating in the #stophateforprofit initiative, and/or those who have explicitly associated their brand with values like tolerance, equality, justice, diversity, and inclusion must invest significant time and effort in being vigilant around these issues. Whenever and wherever they identity transgressions from any part of their sphere of influence they must act, even when doing so acts against their self-interest. This sphere of influence can extend to employees, partners, suppliers and even customers. Here are a couple of examples:


When the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation tweeted early last month that “racism and discrimination are critical public health issues that demand an urgent response” following the death of George Floyd, CrossFit founder Greg Glassman tweeted back saying “it’s FLOYD-19”. This response was perceived to trivialise both Floyd’s death and the COVID-19 pandemic and prompted heavy backlash from CrossFit-affiliated brands and gyms, with Reebok declaring that “in light of recent events, we have made the decision to end our partnership with CrossFit HQ” (link).


Also last month a Twitter user posted that she was “dead chuffed that Yorkshire Tea hasn’t supported BLM” alongside a smiley face emoji. Over the rest of the day this elicited an ongoing conversation with other Twitter users, Yorkshire Tea and PG Tips, roughly as follows:

Yorkshire Tea: “Please don’t buy our tea. We’re taking time to educate ourselves and plan proper action before we post. We stand against racism. #BlackLives Matter”.

Twitter user 2: “So now I’ve got to buy PGTips? Well F-me. This sucks. And Yorkshire Tea is done. Good luck with the BS stance”.

PG Tips: “Yeah it does suck, “Twitter user 2”. If you are boycotting teas that stand against racism, you’re going to have to find two new tea brands now. #BlackLives Matter #solidaritea”.

Here you have two brands, both effectively turning down custom because they perceive a strong values mismatch between themselves and the customer.

Is it about participation or real change?

As with any participation in corporate social responsibility initiatives, brands will likely be accused to taking part for the sake of their image rather than out of a real desire to bring about change. Of course, participation is better than inaction whatever the motivation but perhaps brands should simultaneously be exploring other avenues of action too. What is clear is that we are in a moment of profound change and all of us, brands included, must be on the right side of history.

This article was written by Nick Chiarelli, Head of Trends at UNLIMITED with input from Dan Bowers and Olivia Wedderburn of TMW UNLIMITED.