Social media advertising and the race against time

race against time
Image credit: wan wei /

It is curious how often Google and Facebook spokesmen are “not immediately available for comment”. They are basically never available for comment, immediately or otherwise, when the issue in the news is about advertising, fake news or content that is divisive.

It is, of course, not surprising. When you are powerless to do something you seldom rush forth to comment. Your instinct is to hide.

When the news in question is that Unilever is threatening to pull its advertising from social media sites that divide society, you know the issue is serious. A quick Google search (other search engines will become increasingly available) says that Unilever’s global advertising budget in 2016 was a cool €7.72 billion. Statistics are not immediately available on how much of that is directed to online advertising, but we do know that Google and Facebook took around 60% of the online advertising budget in 2017.

So, threatened with the withdrawal of one of the largest advertisers in the world, and one that prides itself on being the one that is about family and children, then why would you be immediately available for comment? Unless you wanted a quick end to your career.

In other news, members of the UK Government are on their way to meetings in Silicon Valley to discuss a new UK breakthrough in AI that can filter out jihadist content instantly and with 94% accuracy, so only 6 in 100 posts of people being beheaded get through.

No more information is immediately available on this either, but our cynical radar just went to red alert.

If this is a real breakthrough, then it is, perhaps, the start of a belated fight back in this area. If it is hype in any reportable form, it will further damage the situation. And our radar went up because the AI engine ‘learned’ how to filter out jihadist content by ‘watching’ thousands of hours of such content. And we are meant to believe that jihadist operatives are not aware of this (it is on the BBC, after all) and are not, as we speak, working out how to disguise future posts.

Red alert.

The wider point is that the damage has been done, and brands with big, big budgets are no longer throwing money into online advertising simply because TV is something that no one watches in real time anymore and everyone is glued to YouTube.

The dilemma of toxic social media has become a race against time for the Facebooks, Twitters and Googles. Can these platforms – with or without government help – get to the point of being able to block virtually all divisive content, before companies like Unilever pull the plug forever?

If they can, then ‘social’ media (we may need to change the name) will transform and grow and reach a plateau of security, maturity and contentment.

If they cannot, then there is still a huge cliff to fall off of if 95% of your revenues come from advertising.

And one thing is for sure – companies like Unilever have armies of incredibly talented and creative people working out how to best spend their advertising dollars. And there are many options.

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