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Unilever India echoes parent's threat to pull Facebook, Google ads

Failing to address concerns over toxic content could result in tighter regulations

Hindustan Unilever, India's largest consumer goods firm, said it will pull ads from Facebook and Google unless these companies weed out harmful content on their platforms.   © Reuters

MUMBAI -- Hindustan Unilever is following its parent, global consumer goods brand Unilever, by threatening to pull advertisements from online platforms such as Facebook and Google for failing to weed out unreliable and harmful content.

The move is significant for Facebook and Google, given that Hindustan Unilever spends around 15% of its advertising and market budget on digital platforms. Last year, it spent a total of 35.42 billion rupees ($552.5 million) on advertising and marketing in one of Unilever's biggest markets in Asia.

"The global commitment is applicable to all countries," an HUL spokesperson said, referring to Unilever chief market offer Keith Weed's statement at the weekend that the company wants to avoid advertising on platforms that allow division to breed and that do not make a positive impact on society.

"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 at a conference in California on Sunday. "It is in the digital media industry's interest to listen and act on this. Before viewers stop viewing, advertisers stop advertising and publishers stop publishing."

India is seeing a growing trend of advertising on digital platforms. With growing availability of smartphones and internet users, this medium is likely to take center stage in the future. Corporation are taking their advertising on this medium seriously and would not want to be associated with brands that are seen as morally corrupt.   

According to India Brand Equity Foundation, India is expected to become the second fastest growing advertising market in Asia after China. "India's digital advertising market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 33.5% to cross the 255 billion rupees ($3.8 billion) mark by 2020," it said.

Google India did not respond to an email requesting comment, but Facebook India said: "We fully support Unilever's commitments and are working closely with them."

Facebook India has already started working toward address these industry-wide challenges. In September, the company laid out a detailed plan, including outlining advertisement principles, fact-checking organizations to curb the spread of false news, and making investments in artficial intelligence technology and training staff to spot and remove toxic content.

PwC India Partner and Leader for Entertainment and Media Frank D'Souza said that online platforms such as Google and Facebook will have to take greater control of content.

"If they do not take actions on their own, there will be regulations in different parts of the world to ensure that they do the right thing and put processes in place," D'Souza said. "That will increase their cost of doing business, which in itself will put some level of pressure on their margins".

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