Co-op Group AGM fringe event: Where is it acceptable to advertise?

The session followed a campaign by Stop Funding Hate, which called on the Group to withdraw its ads from the Daily Express, Mail and Sun newspapers

In October, campaign group Stop Funding Hate called on the Co-op Group to rethink its advertising policies. The organisation was concerned that Co-op Food and Co-op Insurance advertise regularly in the Daily Express newspaper, which the SFH campaign says is “notorious for its relentless campaign against minority groups, including refugees and migrants”.

“[The Co-op] is one of the UK’s leading ethical brands – a company renowned for putting principles before profit,” said Richard Wilson, SFH founder. “For a business like this to be helping finance the anti-migrant campaigns of the Daily Express just seemed like a complete mismatch.”

In a statement addressed to the campaign, then-Group chief executive, Richard Pennycook, said that the organisation’s Co-op Way Policy Committee, established in 2015, was “working systematically” through all its policies.

In March, SFH stepped up its campaign on the Group, and at its 2017 AGM, the Group addressed the issue directly through a fringe event chaired by Hazel Blears, member-nominated director.

“We know that concerns have been raised about where we invest our advertising, particularly in media whose views can be interpreted as distasteful and damaging,” said a statement from the Group leading up to the event. “We’ve already started reviewing our advertising and are developing an advertising policy that supports business growth; protects member choice; and promotes our values.”

The fringe event drew together a panel comprising Lord Victor Adebowale (Co-op Group director), Richard Brooks (vice-president, National Union of Students), Helen Carroll (Co-op Group director of brand) and Phil Smith (director general of ISBA, the Voice of British Advertisers). SFH’s Richard Wilson was also invited, but couldn’t attend.

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The panel discussed whether it is right to seek to effect influence editorial decisions through ad spend; how to protect the value that advertising generates for the organisation; and how the Group ensures its values and principles remain clear from the editorial content that surrounds them.

A ‘broad church’

“We have to be respectful of freedom of the press,” said Lord Adebowale. “There was an uproar from members [on the back of the SFH campaign], and our consultative approach has been right.”

The cross-bench peer, who is chief executive of social care enterprise Turning Point, believes that the Group shouldn’t withdraw adverts from the papers in question.

“We’re a broad church,” he said. “I know of co-op members who have voted Conservative. I know of co-op members who have voted UKIP. We’re not a state, we’re a business. And let’s be honest. yes we’ve met with the Sun and the Mail about some of their content – but we’re not going to change the editorial views of the press by withdrawing adverts.”

Richard Brooks of the NUS disagreed. “Money influences editorial content,” he said. “I’m a big believer of constructive engagement and being a part of that conversation.”

He described how views on the subject also varied across generations, with the number of people thinking the Group should drop ads increasing in younger generations. But he added: “You would be hard pressed to find people in the younger generation who would buy a newspaper every single day – this has led to a diversity of the types of news we consume.”

Phil Smith, who was named as new director general of ISBA in November, highlighted how advertisers never want to be seen to influencing editorial. “At the same time they have always said ‘we retain the right to decide who we advertise with’,” he said.

A moral aspect?

That decision often has a moral aspect to it. Research suggests that Co-op Group members didn’t support the Group advertising in adult magazines, or publications in the gambling / betting sector.

Vivian Woodell, director of Midcounties Co-op, said there was “no doubt” that papers do seek to change opinions. “In the lead up to the referendum, the percentage of negative stories around immigration increased to toxic levels.

“It is absolutely right for an organisation to not want to be associated with a publication that is associated with hate crimes. We can discriminate about who we advertise with.”

But “the world is not as clear as some people would like to believe,” said Lord Adebowale. “We should advertise in a way that our message is given. Our values should drive the style around the adverts we put out.”

The problem with this, said one delegate, is that “co-operative ‘morals’ are not shared with everyone. When you start bringing in moral judgements, what judgements do you make?”

Another delegate questioned the Group’s policy of what is being advertised. “What are we advertising?” he asked. “Today’s AGM, looking at all of the good things we are doing, has been preaching to the converted. We are in control of the message – that message could contradict what the papers are saying.”

Using the available platforms

Helen Carroll highlighted that the Sun and Daily Mail – as the two British newspapers with the highest circulation – are also the newspapers with the highest circulation among Co-op Group shoppers. The retailer sells 1 million copies of these titles every week – which in turn accounts £6m of sales annually across its food estate.

A third of these are bought by members, “the people who often do support our values,” she said. “And the community groups supported by the 1% fund do a lot of good in the areas the Daily Mail and Sun are sold.”

She added “because we are a co-operative, we don’t have the luxury of thinking whether something will make our brand look good or not. The fact that we are having this debate makes it an important difference. That’s the co-op difference – about how we make these decisions.

“We can’t expect people to understand what [the Group is] about by osmosis. Now we’re in a position where we can start talking about this.”

Phil Smith believes that if the Group really wants to make a difference, it needs to thrive as a business and be able to compete among a broad range of competitors. “To deny ourselves use of such a broad platform is potentially a problem for the viability of the business.”

Lord Adebowale agreed, adding: “We have to be advertising in the the places where the next generation is – that’s where the debate needs to be. It needs to be local, personal and sensitive to the next generation.”

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