Unilever, which makes everything from Ben & Jerry's ice cream to Dove soap, has warned Facebook and Google that it could pull its digital ads if the social media networks do not do a better job of monitoring objectionable content and divisive fabricated news stories.
Keith Weed, the company's chief marketing officer, described online networks as "a swamp" mired with fabricated news, racist, sexist and extremist content in a speech Monday at the Interactive Advertising Bureau's annual leadership meeting in Palm Desert, Calif.
"As a brand-led business, Unilever needs its consumers to have trust in our brands," Weed said in a statement in advance of the speech. "We can't do anything to damage that trust — including the choice of channels and platforms we use. So, 2018 is the year when social media must win trust back."
London-headquartered Unilever has considerable clout as the fourth-largest global advertiser — behind Procter & Gamble, Samsung and Nestlé — and spent $8.6 billion in 2017, according to AdAge. Its other brands include Axe, Lipton, Noxzema and Suave.
Unilever's warning comes as Facebook, which recently announced a change to what appears in users' news feeds, is thought to be losing younger users, eMarketer estimates. And it comes after U.S. lawmakers scolded Facebook for allowing the spread of misinformation, including an initiative from Russian operatives to influence the U.S. presidential election.
Lawmakers also criticized Google and Twitter for allowing the spread of fabricated news stories. Google-owned YouTube recently said it will increase the number of people overseeing content after several advertisers pulled their ads from the video-sharing site after their ads were shown on videos of young children that had attracted scores of comments from pedophiles.
Still, Google and Facebook are expected to attract more than 65% of U.S. digital ad revenues in 2018, according to eMarketer, with Google capturing more than $40 billion and Facebook nearly $22 billion.
Consumers will hold advertisers accountable, too, when they see brands' ads alongside objectionable or questionable content, Weeds said.
"Fake news, racism, sexism, terrorists spreading messages of hate, toxic content directed at children — parts of the internet we have ended up with is a million miles from where we thought it would take us," Weed said in his prepared remarks, a copy of which were provided to USA TODAY. U.K. news outlets The Telegraph and the Financial Times were among the first to report on Unilever's plans.
"It is in the digital media industry's interest to listen and act on this," Weed's remarks say. "Before viewers stop viewing, advertisers stop advertising and publishers stop publishing."
Both Facebook and Google say they are listening to Unilever. “We fully support Unilever’s commitments and are working closely with them," Facebook said in a statement.
"Keith has always pushed us and the industry to be better," Google said in its own statement. "There is nothing we take more seriously than the trust and safety of our users, customers and partners, and we will continue to work to earn that trust every day."
Consumers and marketers alike are concerned about the prevalence of objectionable online content. In a Chief Marketing Officer Council survey of 2,000 consumers from July 2017, 85% of respondents expressed some concern about the ease of which they come across hateful, offensive and objectionable content.
Nearly three-fourths (72%) of 300 marketers in a September 2017 CMO Council survey said they had concerns about ad placements, and 43% said they had experienced some type of problem in how their advertising was viewed.
"Consumers expect brands that they invest their time and their money in to to be responsible citizens of the Web. They expect them to understand and know where their brand is being seen," said Liz Miller, the CMO Council's senior vice president.
As digitally-programmed ad technology accelerated, "we stopped being responsible," she said. "There was a time when social networks could do anything they wanted. That attitude has got to change. We’ve got to realize we are all in the same pool together, and if we don’t (do something) this is going to get worse."
Unilever's leverage is also unique in that their products get much of their face time on store shelves rather than via search results, says Rebecca Hamilton, professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business in Washington. "Not to say it is not important, but they probably have more independence from digital (ads) than some other firms," she says.
Unilever's Weed said he had met recently with Facebook, Google, Twitter, Snap and Amazon, "and I repeated one point to each and every one of them. It is critical that our brands remain not only in a safe environment, but a suitable one," he said.
"We cannot continue to prop up a digital supply chain — one that delivers over a quarter of our advertising to our consumers — which at times is little better than a swamp in terms of its transparency," he says.
Unilever is working with IBM on a new blockchain technology pilot program to record digital advertising and reduce ad fraud, Weed announced.
While warning the social media giants about Unilever's concerns, Weed did not specifically say it would be pulling its ad dollars from Facebook or Google, Brian Wieser, senior advertising analyst with Pivotal Research Group, said in a note to investors Monday.
"If anything, those comments suggested that Unilever will stay the course so long as Facebook, Google and others continue to make efforts to improve their platforms," he said.
Follow USA TODAY reporter Mike Snider on Twitter: @MikeSnider.