In a recent discussion in class* it was noted that the objective of the Stop Funding Hate campaign was to change the headlines and tone down the anti-migrant and xenophobic rhetoric in the Daily Mail, Daily Express and The Sun.
I would question whether this is the aim of the campaign, even if this is the change they want to see.
For anyone not familiar with the campaign it started with a video that ‘brandjams’ the big retailers’ Christmas adverts highlighting how the stories that are used in these ads, looking out for others even if strangers or enemies, are inconsistent with the divisive hate messages in the newspapers in which these brands advertise.
It has been successful in terms of numbers of people who have watched the video, signed the petition, and sent messages to CEOs. The campaign benefited from an early announcement from LEGO (in a vulnerable position followed a sustained campaign by Greenpeace in 2014) that it would not continue its commercial partnership with the Daily Mail.
I believe the aim of the campaign, and why it is effective, is to target the lack of alignment between corporate words and actions. It seeks to highlight inconsistency between the values that highly visible, high street brands – such as Waitrose, John Lewis, Sainsbury’s and M&S – are selling through their Christmas adverts and the messages in the newspapers where they are spending their marketing budgets. All these companies have corporate commitments to do business differently and better, yet this campaign asks serious questions about how companies’ corporate responsibility and ethics inform decisions on advertising. It is a good example of an ‘isomorphic pressure’ or watchdog campaign (Yaziji & Doh, 2009).
Targeting commercial relationships between companies is not a new strategy. It evolves the concept of NGOs using indirect pressure to influence behaviour via ‘critical players’, that is organisations that have a direct influence over the company’s behaviour (Yaziji & Doh, 2009).
This is happening on two levels. Stop Funding Hate aims to “mobilise consumer power to bring positive change”. It is asking customers of John Lewis, Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and M&S to let them know their advertising actions fail to align with the organisational norms and standards expected by its customers (Yaziji & Doh, 2009). It sends a message to business that social responsibility extends not only to how you advertise (where there are accepted norms and standards), but where you you advertise.
At a second level, the business-to-business customer relationship, the expectation is that those companies will signal through withdrawing of advertising the lack of alignment between the their own interests and institutional norms and the editorial approach of the newspapers (Yaziji & Doh, 2009). Some companies are already showing this type of leadership in the US and Europe by withdrawing advertising from the far right news site Breitbart.
Some of the criticisms of the campaign focus on corporate influence on editorial, and free speech. However the campaign is not about press censorship. In fact campaign founder, Richard Wilson, states that free speech is a core value of the campaign and believes that the target newspapers are can print what they wish, going so as far to say: “If the Daily Mail editor wants to stand in Hyde Park with a megaphone and a sandwich board, expressing his views on immigration, we will defend his right to do so” (Wilson, 2016). But then going on to make the crucial point: “Please don’t make us pay for the megaphone” (Wilson, 2016).
This approach makes sense given the media context in Britain. As Professor Steven Barnett described in the panel discussion at the 4th Annual Leveson Lecture, “The UK is one of the only countries where politicians have been subservient to media conglomerates for over 30 years”. Instead of taking on the press barons directly and getting into issues around censorship and free speech, hit them where it hurts, and for a sector with a broken business model, that is its commercial partnerships and advertising revenues.
However, in an era where companies are increasingly expected to be responsible for their social and environmental impacts – every company should be held to account for what it emits, whether that is through its brainprint or footprint. Making sure that emissions are not toxic, whether that is carbon or news, should be a condition of doing business in the 21st Century. So it is good to also see organisations such as Hacked Off taking on the press barons more directly.
Yaziji, M. and Doh, J.P. (2009) NGOs and Corporations: Conflict and collaboration. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.