#StopFundingHate: How far should advertisers go for a cause, and should they?

Last week, Lego pulled out its ads from The Daily Mail after a British father questioned the company’s association with a newspaper that “creates distrust of foreigners”.

Updated: November 20, 2016 2:25 am
migranst-759 #StopFundingHate is an admirable idea, but those running the campaign should spend their time and effort creating a platform that educates the right. (File)

In April last year, British columnist Katie Hopkins wrote a piece in The Sun titled, ‘Rescue boats? I’d use gunships to stop migrants’. While the headline was enough to convey the intent of the writer, certain lines in the column — “NO, I don’t care. Show me pictures of coffins, show me bodies floating in water, play violins and show me skinny people looking sad. I still don’t care… Make no mistake, these migrants are like cockroaches” — rankled many, including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, who found the comparison between migrants and “cockroaches” similar to those made by the Nazis.

For Richard Wilson, the article served as a “real wake-up call”. “Cockroaches was a term used in Rwanda to demonise the Tutsis and then created a mentality that helped to make genocide possible in Rwanda. So that’s a glimpse at what’s at the far end of the spectrum when you start to demonise and dehumanise people,” he told The Tab, an online news network. According to the website, 2016 has witnessed a “drastic increase in the number of sensationalist front pages negatively portraying refugees and immigrants, with 137 recorded so far from The Daily Mail, The Daily Express and The Sun”.

The result was #StopFundingHate, a campaign that Wilson, a London-based activist, launched on Facebook in August this year. The campaign urged firms such as Aldi, Asda, Barclays, British Airways, Co-op UK, Gillette, Iceland, John Lewis, Marks & Spencer, Morrisons, Virgin Media and Waitrose, among others, to stop advertising in tabloids such as The Sun, The Daily Mail and The Daily Express. In three days, the page got 70,000 likes and the launch video was viewed over 6 million times.

But the biggest success of the campaign came last week, when Danish toy company Lego decided to end its advertising agreement with The Daily Mail, declaring that they are “not planning any future promotional activity with the newspaper”.

“We aren’t just having a go at one newspaper, or even trying to get them to shut down. We are trying to get to the underlying cause, which is that unfortunately these hateful headlines do sell papers, and by extension that sells advertising. So if you reward those papers with advertising, you are incentivising more hate,” Wilson said in an interview to Vice magazine.

Over the past few months, as Wilson’s campaign picked pace, it has shown promising results. Following several complaints, British optical retail chain Specsavers pulled out a prominent front-page advertisement in The Daily Express. The Co-operative Group, a British consumer cooperative with diverse retail businesses, has promised to “review” its advertising policy in the new year. Retired English footballer Gary Lineker, the public face of Walkers Crisps, has raised concerns with the company about the “terminology that some headlines used to describe the migrant crisis” in The Sun.

After its decision to pull out of The Daily Mail contract, Lego confirmed to The Observer that it took the call after being contacted by a British parent, Bob Jones, who in his letter to the company wrote: “Their (The Daily Mail’s) headlines have gone beyond offering a right wing opinion. Headlines that do nothing but create distrust of foreigners, blame immigrants for everything….” Jones, a Lego fan who subscribed to The Daily Mail for the free Lego pack the company gave with the paper, went on to write: “It genuinely bothers me, that a great progressive company like yours supports this ‘news’ paper, helping increase its circulation.”

While Lego’s decision is being hailed as a step towards ending “divisive hate campaigns” in newspapers, many questioned the campaign’s ability to deal with the root of the problem.

“It all brings us back to the problem facing the left. We are undeniably guilty of labelling those who disagree with us as stupid, uneducated and moronic and this has only strengthened their resolve… Silencing newspapers by cutting them off at the source is a completely reductive use of time. Stop Funding Hate is an admirable idea, but those running the campaign should spend their time and effort creating a platform that educates the right, rather than silencing it. If those newspapers are gone, there will still be racist, homophobic, Islamophobic, xenophobic people who will seek to find a voice elsewhere,” wrote Jamie Clarke, a freelance media professional, in his blog JcinLDN.com. Others such as Gemma Joyce feel that it presents a “difficult problem” for brands.

“Brands might not want their non-tabloid reading customers to be angry at them for advertising in these titles but they’re also very interested in getting their products and services in front of the thousands of readers the publications give them access to,” she wrote in Brandwatch, a social media monitoring company.

Joyce also argued that such a move could prove to be detrimental for the newspaper industry, that is anyway struggling to stay afloat. “With audiences moving online, print advertising has begun to flail. If big brands begin to pull adverts, it could be yet another dagger in the side of an outdated industry already on its knees,” she wrote. Supporters of the campaign argue that the need and strength of Stop Funding Hate is “undeniable”.

“A campaign like Stop Funding Hate is a response to a level of fear and division in our culture that’s reaching boiling point… There’s no point in waiting for right-wing tycoons like Rupert Murdoch to develop a conscience… In an age of dwindling newspaper sales, advertisers hold real power and influence. And that means — teamed with an Internet era in which consumers can speak directly to brands — each of us has power and influence, too,” wrote Frances Ryan in The Pool, an online news platform. Recently, Wilson and his team took aim at the Christmas advertisements of John Lewis, an upmarket fashion and home store.

Wilson’s campaign released a counter-video “brandjamming” the company’s advertisement, asking viewers “how such companies can preach messages of goodwill at Christmas and then continue to advertise in the newspapers that are dividing us against each other”.

“On the one hand you have John Lewis who tell these beautiful stories that people really emotionally engage with, but then John Lewis is giving money to these companies who have a business model which is portraying the mirror image of this… The Daily Express, The Daily Mail and The Sun, their business model partly involves playing to the worst in human nature,” Wilson said in his interview to The Tab.

However, unlike Lego, John Lewis refrained from taking a position. “We fully appreciate the strength of feeling on this issue but we never make an editorial judgment on a particular newspaper,” the company said in a statement, triggering another debate around censorship and whether advertisers should be dictating what newspapers are “allowed” to write about.

Patrick Burgoyne, however, finds the debate “disingenuous”. “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,” he wrote in Creative Review, a commercial arts and design magazine.

Burgoyne also underlines the fact that for once a campaign has “made brands ask difficult questions of themselves”. “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,” he wrote.

Emphasising the need for campaigns such as Stop Funding Hate, Frances Ryan wrote in The Pool: “The Daily Mail or The Sun itself may not fall, Donald Trump will still be in the White House and the Brexit impact continues — but there will come a point where the business of peddling hate becomes less profitable. Campaigns like Stop Funding Hate can teach the media that truth, compassion and decency are — in every sense — valuable. As part of it, all of us have the power to fight the climate we’re finding ourselves in.”

Curated by Ankita Dwivedi Johri