So Unilever is Threatening Facebook and Google

Avacado halves on dark background

Millennials are mocked for their hypocrisy. They have too many opinions about things. They are precious naïve snowflakes who superficially flash their organic/vegan lifestyles completely unaware of how many forests their avocados are destroying. They might share stories about the importance of sustainable living from their IPhones, when that IPhone is only going to last them another few months before they dispose of it and upgrade to the latest version.

There is this new theory that today’s privileged class use their alternative “righteous” life choices as a means to flaunt identity and status. Instagram uploads of creative quinoa salads are just a younger, hipper, version of the designer handbag. Many have lamented that the trendy liberal elite demonstrate an impoverished understanding towards those who do not have the financial freedom or time to go organic, fair-trade or whatever else it is that they deem so essential to being moral and human.

Unfortunately the poor things just can’t quite get it right, for one reason or another their attempts to show how much they care and spread their important words won’t be taken seriously.

If their concern for what they purchase and consume wasn’t enough to wind everyone else up, they also don’t seem to shut up about their political opinions. Many within the older generation are growing weary of how easily offended the young liberals are and wish that they would give the feminist marches a rest. Also, why can’t they learn to live with a statue of Cecile Rhodes at Oxford university just like everyone else has done before them? The famous social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, has described several millennials as positively “illiberal” for being too pushy about their supposedly liberal views.

Haidt argues that it’s a difficult line to take to be a true liberal, like him and his university professor colleagues, with whom he feels his views are far more in sync, a true liberal does not push their views onto anyone with as much force as the animated impassioned young people of today. True liberals live and let live. They might stand up for what they believe, but if someone hurts them they will turn the other cheek, not protest until whatever it was that hurt them is banned.

But something interesting has happened. This week, you can catch a glimpse at the silver lining to this new culture shift: Unilever is threatening to pull their ads from Facebook and Google. They are urging the tech giants to make their content less divisive and their filtering techniques more transparent and they aren’t the first, their competitors Proctor and Gamble issued a similar ultimatum last year.

This is huge news. We are witnessing the biggest suppliers out there calling our most influential online providers into question. Big companies aren’t generally known for their moral behaviour. They might make a few superficially good moves but not often ones that involve the radical sacrifice of something as important as one of their main clients.

But suddenly being moral is trendy, it’s the zeitgeist, and modifying your brand to the zeitgeist is always a popular money making strategy. Unilever knew that their defiant move would make headlines and they knew exactly who would pay attention: The jackpot for any big brand, hip trendy young people, who, today, appear obsessed with their moral identity and will shout about it until the cows come home.

However it is unfair to attribute Unilever’s grand gesture entirely to cynical business calculations. Paul Polman, their CEO of nine years, begun his career at Unilever promoting good causes. As a man who is also chairman of The World Business Council For Sustainable Development, he has always made it clear that moral choices are a personal priority to him. Over the years he has received numerous awards for working to reduce climate change, working on sustainability and protecting rainforests.

But for real change to occur we need companies beyond Unilever to act and not every corporation is about to do the right thing without pressure being placed on their reputation. This is why today’s culture, in which moral decisions and image crafting come hand in hand, is in some ways something to appreciate.

Sometimes it makes a difference just to show an interest in what’s right. Even if we’re barking up the wrong tree, even if we don’t always follow up every well-meaning word or share with an action and we don’t really have the time or energy to eradicate every single hypocrisy from our lifestyles. If we make enough positive noises, perhaps we can inspire big companies like Unilever to begin to eliminate our hypocrisies for us.

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