Peace, love and understanding. Christmas advertising frequently appeals to our better nature and, by extension, suggests advertisers want to see a world of sharing, kindness and care for the vulnerable. But what about the rest of the year? Is it hypocritical for brands to preach one set of values at Christmas and then actively support publications who, one could argue, do much that is antithetical to those values for the rest of the year?
That’s the question being raised by the Stop Funding Hate campaign. And it requires an answer.
The campaign has produced a video which highlights these issues (above) and its supporters have been challenging brands to explain their advertising in The Sun, Daily Mail and Daily Express.
Responding to one customer using the handle @moloney717 who raised this issue on November 10, the John Lewis Customer Services team tweeted “We fully appreciate the strength of feeling on this issue but we never make an editorial judgement on a particular newspaper”. But, replied @moloney717, “It’s not an editorial judgement. It’s an ethical one. It’s a marketing one. It’s a business one.” Quite.
This appears to have been the only public statement that John Lewis has issued on the subject so far. It’s not enough.
Brands are understandably nervous about seeing to be exercising any ‘censorship’ over publications with which they advertise. However, it would be disingenuous to argue that no brand ever makes decisions on advertising based on the content, stance or tone of a publication. These factors influence ad spend all the time. Decisions may mainly be about the audience a brand wants to reach, but brands are mindful of the content their messages will sit alongside and the company they keep. Otherwise, they would not choose to stay away from, say, a porn website with an audience of millions of consumers, or a newspaper like the Sunday Sport.
Moreover, as many on Twitter have pointed out, one of John Lewis’s ‘principles’ is that “The Partnership aims to obey the spirit as well as the letter of the law and to contribute to the wellbeing of the communities where it operates”. Is John Lewis’s funding of right-wing tabloids, Stop Funding Hate’s supporters are asking, in line with that commitment?
This isn’t just about John Lewis. Stop Funding Hate has also targeted Marks & Spencer and The Co-Operative Group. The latter has said that it is “reviewing” its advertising policy while the group’s supporters have taken LEGO’s statement that it is “not planning any future promotional activity” with the Daily Mail as a victory. However, this may not be the triumph some have claimed. The Mail has reportedly said that the promotional agreement with LEGO had run its course anyway and that the company had not threatened to pull any advertising. LEGO’s statement reads “We have finished the agreement with The Daily Mail and are not planning any future promotional activity with the newspaper”. Not ‘planning’ to do anything is not an outright commitment not to do anything in the future.
There are practical problems here too. Let’s just, for the sake of argument, imagine that LEGO has decided not to run any promotions with the Mail anymore. How would it work in practice? On what basis would it revise that decision in the future? ‘Stop publishing hateful stories’ you might say. OK, but who decides that the required change has taken place, and how? How does the newspaper know what specifically is required of them?
The ‘censorship’ argument is one I have some sympathy with. An advertiser pulling out because it doesn’t like a story is a big deal for any publication. Do you stand up to them or cave in? Do we want to see advertisers dictating what our newspapers are ‘allowed’ to write about?
But there’s a difference between an advertiser putting pressure on a publication to pull a story that is critical of it and an advertiser deciding that a publication, in its entirety, is not a place it wants to be seen in. This isn’t about a specific story, more about tone and language.
In my opinion, much of the recent coverage in the Daily Mail and The Sun has been vile. Within their pages (and websites) publications create their own ‘world’. Advertisers – and readers – must decide if that is a world they wish to inhabit.
Newspapers must remain free to make their own editorial decisions. Brands must be free to choose to place their advertising where they like. But they must also recognise that they are exercising a choice here. When challenged, they should explain those choices in the knowledge that consumers will draw conclusions from them.
If Stop Funding Hate is making brands ask difficult questions of themselves and forcing that debate into the open, we should all be glad of it.