Brands pulling advertising shows free speech is dying

26 Feb 2018  |  Alex Burmaster 
Brands pulling advertising shows free speech is dying

Brands willingness to pull advertising at the slightest whiff of social media unrest is a worrying mirror on how free speech is a slowly dying concept in UK society, writes Alex Burmaster

"Anything that makes me uncomfortable in 2017 should be illegal."

So goes a line in Family Guy - one of the best satirical TV shows ever. It's delivered by a crowd member witnessing an apology from a character who’s facing a baying public following a potentially offensive Tweet. You can see the scene here (tip: skip the first 25 seconds).

Like any good satire it brilliantly and succinctly encapsulates a wider trend, in this case the increasingly over-sensitive world in which we now live. Although there have been numerous examples of this over the last couple of years, one earlier this week was notably worrying and involves the latest wave of brands rushing to pull advertising from a publisher because of a piece of content.

The publisher and piece in question was Richard Littlejohn’s Daily Mail column on the merits of same-sex couples raising children. Other than his beef with anyone sharing ultrasound photos, the main thrust of his arguments were the regard in which birth mothers are held and the opinion that children benefit most from being brought up by a man and woman.

Whether you agree or disagree with his views, isn’t he entitled to share an opinion? Well some Twitter folk didn’t agree and eagerly hashtagged Littlejohn’s opinion into the growing Stop Funding Hate campaign - even though the Mail pointed out, “he explicitly supports civil partnerships and the fostering of children by gay couples - hardly evidence of homophobia." The concern is how easy it now is for someone who disagrees with an opinion to get widespread backing to label it as “hate”.

However, as soon as a Twitter user was unhappy, brands were quick to acquiesce. Center Parcs was one of the first, receiving a post from someone who was confused as to whether an ad from Center Parcs appearing in the article meant the brand supported Littlejohn’s viewpoint. The conversation and reaction is worth a read. The Southbank Centre was another to pull ads but a particularly interesting one was Club Med who, according to PR Week, issued a statement saying they’d decided to suspend “all planned advertising” with the Daily Mail as it “went against their brand values.”

The interesting part was the next line in which a spokesman told PR Week that they’d “not had any direct dealings with the Daily Mail paper previously."

Now I was confused.

They’d pulled “all planned advertising” yet they’d never advertised in the paper before?

So, was the timing a coincidence? Were they genuinely about to change tack and advertise there for the first time or not? Even if they were (I did ask Club Med for clarity but they weren’t able to offer any) why make an announcement saying you’re going to stop doing something before you’d started it?

As a PR flack myself, I wonder whether tapping into the news agenda on pulling ads and showing cultural sensitivity was a motive? To be fair to Club Med, the comments were related to print but their ads have appeared on Mail Online so perhaps that’s what they were referring to.

Our society is supposedly one of free speech but the outcry nowadays (particularly when it’s by a tiny minority) at upsetting, offending or making a joke at someone’s expense is slowly causing the notion to die a death. I admit as an “angry white man” it’s easy for me to say things like this, having zero idea what it’s like to be in a minority group or one facing prejudice - be it race, gender or sexual orientation.

Brands are, perhaps unwittingly, increasingly playing their part into what’s deemed unacceptable - eating into a role traditionally played by government, religion and parents. There must be a demarcation between “hate” and opinion and brands must be more careful about blurring this distinction.

Boycotting sites because you might help fund terror or promote violence or abuse (hate) is certainly the right thing to do but doing so because a columnist offered a traditional world-view (opinion) that some disagree with is very much another.

Otherwise, where does it stop - what’s the next type of behaviour that becomes unacceptable? A comment posted to those offended by Littlejohn’s article cites a future that would please the ‘snowflake’ crowd in Family Guy, “We are rapidly approaching Government by Twitter where all non-PC thinkers will be sent to a correction facility.”

The strongest revolutions are actually slow-burning evolutions, they slowly sneak up on us step-by-step until we hit the point when it’s too late and we wonder how the hell something happened.

Alex Burmaster is co-founder of Meteor Public Relations


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anthonygarnett, al burmaster's friend, home on 28 Feb 2018
“Thanks Al. Great piece highlighting the erosion of free speech (have you checked out Jordan Peterson on Youtube?). I've just about had it with the hypocrisy of these lunatic lefty liberals. They seem intent on destroying the family - the bedrock and fabric of society itself!”


14 Dec 2018 

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