A recent article in the Washington Post reported that Unilever had decided not to advertise its ice-cream products to children under the age of 12, to help combat childhood obesity. When one of the largest consumer goods advertisers in the world decides NOT to advertise certain products to a specific group of customers, this is major industry news.
This certainly appears to be a significant move by a company that generated US$58.22 billion in revenue in 2019. Unilever owns ice-cream brands Ben & Jerry’s, Talenti, Breyers, Klondike and Good Humor. They also own ice-cream treat brands Magnum, Cornetto, Viennetta, Choc Ice and more. So, what is the reason behind the decision to stop advertising ice-cream treats to children? Is this just a case of a large company choosing to do the "right thing?" Are we to simply believe it has made this decision for all the right reasons?
Unilever has four core values: integrity, respect, responsibility and pioneering. Its corporate website states "Doing business with integrity has always been at the heart of our corporate responsibility commitments. Integrity defines how we behave, wherever we are. It guides us to do the right thing for the long-term success of Unilever." The last statement is telling because the focus is clearly on doing what is best for the company.
As we dig a bit deeper on this issue, these products are still advertised to consumers over 12. Parents are included in this group. Therefore, aren’t children still going to see some of these ads and have access to the products at home? Unilever is simply not advertising on mediums that primarily target children under 12 or using social media influencers that target this age group. Nowhere in the Washington Post article does Unilever say it will stop all advertising or production of these products. Children will still be able to eat these products if their parents buy them.
By comparison, the U.S.-based pharmacy chain, CVS, made a corporate decision in 2014 to no longer sell tobacco products in its stores. The company estimated the decision would result in US$1.5 billion in lost annual tobacco sales with an additional US$500 million in lost revenue from people who would purchase tobacco and other items when they were in store. To me, CVS is an example of a company making a major decision despite the painful financial consequence. CVS, like Unilever, lists "integrity" as one of its core values. CVS also describes how they want to operate, "This is health with heart: our promise that no matter where someone is on their path to better health, we’ll be with them all the way." Can you see the difference in the actions of each company based on the same core value of "integrity?"
We can also look at the alcoholic beverage industry for another approach to dealing with a potential negative impact on personal health. We know that advertising is designed to increase consumption. Beer companies were arguably the first alcoholic beverage producers to add a social conscience to their advertising. In all the advertising I have seen, I do not remember ads suggesting that consumers should set out to consume so much beer or spirits that they don’t remember the night before. They always have a message that you need to control your consumption. These beverage companies now add the concept of "drink responsibly" or "enjoy responsibly." If Unilever is trying to create a winning game plan by adjusting its market messages, they might want to consider the successful approach that these alcoholic beverage companies have used.
Another aspect to this story concerns the employees. There are Unilever employees around the world involved in producing these ice-cream treats. By making this change to its advertising, what message is the company sending to its employees? Many of these employees may have families of their own. How should Unilever employees feel about making ice-cream products that apparently contribute to childhood obesity?
The leadership in companies typically sets its corporate core values. Ideally, leadership decisions and actions show employees how the values should guide all organizational activities. Then, employees can believe in and live the values each day, confident that the company is operating in a positive, socially responsible manner. Unilever only made a minor adjustment to its advertising plan, believing this was enough action for the cause. And like so many other companies, Unilever displayed minimal effort that did not demonstrate integrity as a core value. Conversely, CVS showed what a core value of integrity looks like by doing the right thing; knowing there would be a substantial negative financial impact. CVS clearly is a model for others to follow.
Tim’s bits: We all have choices to make in the food, beverages and everyday items we purchase. If we want to purchase a product with a potential negative side-effect resulting from excessive consumption, we should be aware of the potential outcome. And yes, the company also has a responsibility to advise of the possible side-effects in its advertising messages. However, we must self-police ourselves as thinking and responsible human beings. As my Dad used to say, "everything in moderation."
Tim Kist, CMC, a certified management consultant by law, works with organizations to improve their overall performance by being truly customer-focused.
Tim is a certified management consultant with more than two decades of experience in various marketing and sales leadership positions.