After consulting with its members the Co-op Group has decided to continue to advertise in tabloids Mail, Express and the Sun.
The advertising policy has provoked controversy but the retailer says it will seek to use the papers’ mass circulation to promote its values, rather than withdrawing advertising from them.
Last October, campaign group Stop Funding Hate asked the Group to rethink its advertising policies, a call repeated in March this year. It argues that, as one of “the UK’s leading ethical brands”, the Group should not be “helping finance anti-migrant campaigns of the Daily Express”.
But Co-op Members’ Council president Nick Crofts said members were given the chance to discuss the advertising policy during a fringe event at its AGM in June where members – a debate reported in Co-op News.
Before the AGM, the Group carried out research into its members’ choice of news sources, and examined the relationship between advertising and sales of its products and services.
“We know that many of our members are regular readers of the Mail, Express and Sun, either in print or online,” wrote Mr Crofts wrote in a blog post.
“In addition, we know customers to our food stores buy these newspapers regularly. That means the papers remain significant channels for our advertising and we can track how our adverts encourage people to shop with us more.”
But, he added, the Group had decided to be “more proactive” in its relationship with the outlets.
“Earlier this year we met with senior executives at the Daily Mail and the Sun to tell them how we and our members felt and why some of the stories they’ve published don’t sit well with our Co-op values or our long heritage of supporting communities in need both at home and abroad,” he said. “We’re also hoping to speak to the Daily Express.
“Rather than walking away, we’re going to take advantage of their mass circulation to promote our Co-op values to their millions of readers – many of whom are our own members.”
As part of the new strategy, the Group placed full-page adverts in the Mail, Express and Sun in which it highlighted the importance of equality of rights and global solidarity.
“This is just the first of a series of adverts which will emphasise our values and principles as part of that international, co-operative movement, and challenge those views expressed in print which we and many of our members believe are incompatible with our values of equality, solidarity, self-help and openness,” said Mr Crofts.
He added that since the new strategy might not please all members, the Group would continue to monitor its impact and effectiveness.
But campaigners are sceptical about the effect of the policy, branding it “naïve”, and repeated calls for the Group to withdraw its advertising.
Richard Wilson from Stop Funding Hate said: “The past 12 months have seen the biggest spike in UK hate crime ever recorded. During this time, the Co-op Group has been one of the most prolific advertisers in the Sun, Daily Mail and Daily Express – three newspapers that have been called out by the United Nations over their hostile anti-migrant coverage.
“Leicester University’s Centre For Hate Studies this month warned of ‘a toxic climate in which the targeting of people on the basis of their identity is seen as legitimate… in which the demonisation of particular groups… within sections of the British media has gone unchecked’.
“With experts warning of a link between the hate in our media and the hate crime on our streets, we would urge the Co-op to move beyond rhetoric and develop a genuinely ethical advertising policy. As a basic minimum, we would encourage them to engage with – and listen to – organisations like Tell MAMA, who work to support victims of hate crime, and understand its underlying causes.”
Tell MAMA director Iman Atta said: “The position that the Co-op has taken is one that is understandable – though merely promoting a few statements around equality through advertising in newspapers who have pumped out headlines time after time, vilifying Muslims as a whole and not just extremists, is naïve.
“The Co-op has placed some advertisements over a few days that make clear their support for equality and this has been a way of influencing the relevant papers and their readers. Compare that with decades of anti-Muslim, anti-Gypsy and Traveller and anti-refugee statements and you have a toxic concoction that a handful of ads is not even going to make a real dent into.
“What is needed is a position where advertisers realise that their budgets are a mechanism to effect positive change in newspapers who seek to divide, sensationalise and turn communities against each other. In others words, removing ad budgets will effect change in the most divisive of papers.”
And Prof Neil Chakraborti, of the Centre for Hate Studies at Leicester University, said: “While public statements in support of social change and global solidarity are to be welcomed, the impact of those statements within particular newspapers is likely to be severely diluted by the sheer volume of sensationalist headlines which appear alongside them.
“The relentless demonisation of ‘others’ within those newspapers perpetuates stereotypes, drives a wedge between communities and legitimises acts of targeted hostility. At a time when all of us should be striving to do whatever we can to oppose hatred and discrimination, it is imperative that companies with proud ethical values reject associations which damage principles of openness, tolerance and equality for all.”