Internet Wake-Up Call

Hear that? If you listen carefully, the internet is getting a wakeup call.

The incessant ringing was brought into sharp focus by Unilever’s CMO at the IAB leadership conference when he threatened to withhold ad budgets from social platforms that don’t clean up their act. “Unilever will not invest in platforms or environments that do not protect our children or which create division in society, and promote anger or hate,” Keith Weed told marketers. 

“We will prioritize investing only in responsible platforms that are committed to creating a positive impact in society,” he went on to say. It didn’t take much to hear the puckering sound across the industry. Demands by someone who controls $9 billion tend to have that effect.

Experts were quick to call it the industry’s #MeToo moment, as if we were about to hear a string of revelations that would bring the mighty to their knees. That’s typical of an industry that always frames developments by what came before and fails to see the real impact of the moment.



First of all, kudos to Unilever and other brands that understand their marketing budgets are more than a pile of negotiating clout. Brands are powerful, if often overlooked, voices in the civic discourse. 

The brand isn’t merely demanding crappy content be kept away from its ads. The call is for sweeping improvements in the very fabric of the digital platforms. It’s akin to marketers demanding TV wean itself off trashy reality shows in favor of a more intelligent viewing options. (Hint, hint.)

If platforms, both existing and emergent, are up to the challenge, this is the moment to jumpstart the internet innovation we’ve come to know but haven’t seen for a while. Seriously, what’s the last technology that’s come out of left field and altered the digital landscape? Augmented reality? Snap Goggles? 

It’s been 20 years since the internet burst onto the consciousness of the public. In its early days (the late 1990s), the pace of innovation was dizzying. There was something truly revolutionary every week. The public often had trouble keeping up with — or even understanding — things like voice over IP, streaming video, online banking, ecommerce and file sharing. 

Certainly, there were plenty of duds along the way, but everyone understood that was part of the process. The failures helped decide what was going to thrive and what would be discarded on the trash heap.

In those heady days of growth, lawmakers around the globe wrestled with how they should regulate the digital space. Activists argued that the internet was best compared to a living creature, adapting and evolving faster than process-bound legislators could respond.

If that’s the case, then in the past five years the internet has become an overweight couch potato, more content snacking on a buffet of advertiser dollars than building bold, new opportunities. So-called big ideas are typically borrowed interest or iterative of last year’s “game-changer.”

Now someone with lots of clout is threatening to pinch off the feeding trough of advertising dollars and demanding changes. There will be an inevitable rush to tweak algorithms for Facebook’s News Feed, or YouTube’s search. 

But right now, out there somewhere, maybe in a dorm room or garage, is someone with a truly new idea, something we’ve not seen before. We don’t even know we need it. Whatever it is, it brings people together in new ways and does so without enabling the uglier elements of human behavior. 

Unilever deserves praise for its bold statement of global citizenship. Here’s hoping it catalyzes the creative forces that made the internet great in the first place to make it exciting once again.

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