GB News and the rise of ethical advertising

Over 15 companies have already withdrawn advertising from the divisive GB News.

Colin Baines - Non-Executive Director of Stop Funding Hate, Investment Engagement Manager at Friends Provident Foundation, and former Ethics Adviser and Campaigns Manager at the Co-op Bank and Group - explains how ethical advertising has become a mainstream corporate responsibility issue, and why threats will not de-legitimise it.

In January 2021, the Evening Standard ran the headline, “Are you ready for a British Fox News? The people behind GB News hope so,” launching the publicity campaign for the new GB News TV channel. 

Stop Funding Hate responded in February, urging advertisers not to fund a Fox News style channel, and raising concerns about importing this hyper-partisan, pundit opinion led model. 

The chairman and lead presenter of GB News, Andrew Neil, has since rejected the Fox News comparison but both the FT and Bloomberg have noted similarities in the model. Neil has spent the time since positioning GB News and himself as leading the vanguard against ‘woke’ - defined in the dictionary as “Alert to injustice in society, especially racism”. 

Who looks at Fox News and its promotion of climate change and public health disinformation, its peddling of conspiracy theories and incitement to hatred, and its pernicious impact on American society, and thinks “let’s import that to the UK”? 

With such a divisive, expressly anti-social justice, and anti-equality pre-launch campaign, it is no wonder that #DontFundGBNews regularly trended before the channel aired, with Stop Funding Hate supporters contacting brands before final decisions were made on advertising. 

GB News launch and the vilification of Stop Funding Hate supporters

In his opening monologue on launch night, Andrew Neil said “if you want fake news, lies, disinformation, distortion of the facts, conspiracy theories, then GB News is not for you.” Yet, it only took an hour for a presenter to rant that “doomsday scientists and public health officials have taken control”, were “addicted to power”, and running an “never-ending scare campaign” regarding public health measures. It was also not long for Nigel Farage to be given a platform to declare without challenge that Black Lives Matter is “Marxist” and “wants to bring down the whole of Western civilization”.

Disinformation and conspiracy theories were not the only immediate problem: adverts were running on the channel without the approval of companies. It seems media agencies had placed the adverts in breach of several companies’ procurement policies and brand safeguards, who immediately pulled the ads upon being made aware by Stop Funding Hate supporters.

Daily Mail, Daily Express, Telegraph, et al, alongside GB News, attacked advertisers that had spoken publicly. The Daily Mail even trawled through the social media histories of members of the public for no greater crime than politely contacting businesses they frequent. The most extreme examples they could find to quote included, “I will not spend any more of my hard-earned cash in your stores”.

Despite a great deal of time and resources, they found nothing objectionable in Stop Funding Hate’s communications with advertisers. 

Neil’s monologue on Stop Funding Hate was perhaps the most remarkable response to the campaign - not least because of the threats made to advertisers if they did not continue to fund GB News, even though many ads had appeared by mistake. 

“All these brands should understand, this boycott business can play both ways…If you add our audiences, our friends, our allies, our sympathisers, together we can muster millions of supporters on social media. It is not a good idea to be on the wrong end of them”, Neil said. “You’re in the politics business now...and like politicians you have to be held to account.” 

For all the accusations, companies have freedom of choice over where they do or do not advertise. Exercising this right is not political and does not impinge on anyone's freedom of speech. Similarly, the public has free speech to engage companies on ethical issues and encourage ethical standards and has freedom of choice over where to shop or not shop. 

Attacks on these basic rights are not only authoritarian and anti-democratic but anti-free market and anti-capitalist. 

Ethical advertising emerges en masse

“GB News wants to be treated as a traditional ad-supported news channel, but it’s promoting itself as a politically opinionated combatant in the culture wars”, said the New York Times after GB News’ first week on air. 

GB News cannot have it both ways. Why would advertisers want to fund attacks on, and attempts to politicise, their own company values and the good work they are doing in their businesses on a wide range of social and environmental issues? 

As a result, over the first four days of airing, 15 companies pulled their advertising, all stating they were unaware that ads had been placed.

In subsequent weeks, more advertisers have removed their adverts including Sainsbury's after it was bombarded with customer complaints on social media and protests outside its head office, following Nigel Farage's comments about the RNLI and a billboard campaign by Led By Donkeys. Sainbury's statement said the campaign had finished and no more were scheduled.

Responses from advertisers

Grolsch said it is “a brand that prides itself on core values of inclusion and openness to all people, and we want to be clear that we do not associate ourselves with any platforms or outlets that go against these values. We will do everything we possibly can to ensure that Grolsch does not appear on this channel again."

Pinterest stated it “would never have approved it. We work hard to create a positive & safe environment for our advertisers and want the same for our own ads. Without question we’ve suspended our ads from there.”

Indeed, simply stated their adverts had been “removed from airing here in future”, Kopparberg said it had “immediately suspended our ads", and Bosch stated it has a policy to “ensure advertising isn't shown on political channels”.

Ovo Energy pulled its ads, stating "We have a clear policy not to advertise on platforms which do not align with our values. We’ve made the decision to pause our use of the channel whilst we ensure it meets our values."

Nivea, Octopus Energy, Moneysupermarket, LV= insurance, and Vodafone, all noted GB News was new and were pausing ads until they fully understood the channel. Nivea said they wanted to "ensure that they reflect the values we hold as a company” and Octopus wanted to “be sure they're not breaching our policy."

Specsavers “suspended all advertising” whilst it undertook a review, Open University “paused with immediate effect”, and Weetabix stated, "we are in the process of reviewing our safeguards to make sure that our advertising appears only across outlets that reflect our values”.

IKEA was one of the first companies to pull its ads, saying “we have safeguards in place to prevent our advertising from appearing on platforms that are not in line with our humanistic values”.

But following a couple of days of sustained media attacks it rowed back to say, “a decision on our future approach will be taken in due course”, although advertising remained suspended.

Whilst some companies were happy to announce they were boycotting GB News, several emphasised that it was not a boycott but rather a pause for review in line with their policies. 

Beyond the number of significant global advertisers that took immediate action to pull their ads, the really significant victory for Stop Funding Hate and its supporters is how many companies stated that they have advertising procurement policies that require alignment with company values. Whether ads are permanently pulled or in review, these statements herald the mainstreaming of ethical advertising.

Responsible companies will now just pull ads quietly or avoid them

How does GB News think publicly attacking and threatening advertisers and their customers will play out? One or two companies may be sufficiently intimidated to public contrition, as happened with the Co-operative Group last year after pulling ads from The Spectator. But the response from many more advertisers, I suspect, will be to quietly stop advertising without public comment, and potential new advertisers will now exclude GB News. 

That is what happened in late 2017, when Paperchase faced a similar onslaught as punishment for publicly withdrawing a promotion from the Daily Mail and advising it would not repeat. Other advertisers were cowed into silence but in 2019 it was revealed that 265 brands had dropped the Daily Mail prior to its decision to begin efforts to “detoxify”. 

Companies quietly abandoned toxic advertising channels then and it would seem they are doing so now but more systematically. This is a remarkable vindication for Stop Funding Hate, which only four years ago started advocating for ethical advertising policies and alignment with company values and corporate social responsibility commitments.

A list of the remaining advertisers on GB News can be found on the Stop Funding Hate website. It includes Virgin Media, Microsoft and other well-known names. The only business so far to publicly declare its intention to continue advertising on the channel is the Co-operative Group

The strange case of the Co-op

In response to calls to drop GB News, the Co-op gave a statement saying its advertising is driven by ‘principles’, including, “we will not seek to affect the editorial independence of publications or channels” and “we will ensure our values and principles are clear and undiminished regardless of surrounding content”. 

But something does not add up. As Ethical Consumer reported at the time, I filed the ‘Responsible Advertising’ motion at the Co-op AGM in 2018 on behalf of hundreds of Stop Funding Hate supporting Co-op members (including many Ethical Consumer readers). This motion, backed by the National Members Council and unopposed by the Board, received 96% of the AGM vote. 

The motion called upon the Board to review and report upon the impact of its advertising policy to “challenge those views expressed in print which we and many of our members believe are incompatible with our values” and “use our contacts with publishers at every level to make the case for change”. 

If unable to report the impact of this policy to influence editorial, the Board was to prepare an ethical advertising policy to replace it. In 2019, a report was produced but it did not cover what was asked. 

The Co-op chose not to respect the AGM vote. It has been resisting its member mandate for “an ethical advertising policy that puts controls in place to ensure adverts do not appear in media that are incompatible with co-operative ethics, values and principles”, while many other businesses, to their credit, have just got on with it. 

The Co-op was contacted for comment, but no response was received.

For readers supporting the campaign, and who are also members of the Co-op, it is good to be able to use the formal structure to raise issues like this.

One way is to contact your region’s representatives on the National Members’ Council by email. Addresses are linked to from the council membership page.

What can consumers do?

Ethical consumers can support the campaign by checking which businesses are currently funding GB News and contacting those they frequent to politely ask that they advertise responsibly.

A list of current advertisers on GB News can be found on the Stop Funding Hate website

Find out more and support the campaign on the Stop Funding Hate website and Twitter.