Consumers have power. Companies know it. Just look at how quickly Keurig pulled its ads from Sean Hannity’s Fox News show over his coverage of Roy Moore’s alleged child molestation. Indeed, strategically spent big media money can take down talk show hosts, cut into the bank accounts of pro athletes and even elect an American president.
Imagine if consumers demanded the same kind of accountability from the American corporations that are bankrolling Moscow’s information-warfare campaign against U.S. voters.
Western advertising has been filling the coffers of Russian propaganda outlets, underwriting a racist, misogynist, anti-American media that keeps Vladimir Putin in place and actively threatens America’s political system. Writing in The Daily Beast, Mitchell Polman states clearly that “without those ad dollars it would be difficult for Russian media to function.”
Congress recently held social media companies’ feet to the fire for accepting Russian political advertising on their platforms during the 2016 presidential election. Facebook and Twitter have been contrite and promised to work harder to vet future advertising and curb foreign political propaganda aimed at undermining America’s political system.
Attracting less attention and practically unaffected by the focus on Russian propaganda in the U.S., however, is how American advertisers spend multiple millions to underwrite Russian media companies. Western European and U.S. companies purchase endless hours of television advertisements and millions of social media marketing impressions with Russian media organizations that then use foreign ad dollars to weaponize media abroad and against their own people. One recent U.K. estimate in The Times showed “180 British or multinational firms advertising on RT, in a business estimated to be worth more than £1.5m a year” — about $2 million just on one Russian media outlet.
Recent Western state pressure has induced Twitter to cut its support and payment to recognized Russian propaganda outlets RT and Sputnik, admitting that it previously flooded those sites with well-paying advertisements. RT and Sputnik both focus on overseas media markets, targeting their disinformation and dissenting voices at Western democracies and prompting U.K government official Damian Collins to suggest that “British companies should not be advertising on channels that disseminate fake news designed to spread fear and confusion.” Earlier this week, RT was forced to register itself as a foreign agent with the U.S. Justice Department. Twitter announced it will use profits earned from RT advertising to support independent research into civic engagement and elections.
Keurig can pull its ads from Fox News and Nordstrom can yank Ivanka Trump’s clothing line from their racks because of consumer sentiment and protest, but the pressure for Western advertisers to curb their advertising from adjacencies on offensive Russian programming or state-sanctioned media organizations is minimal. Western companies are keenly aware of how commercial placement affects the way their products are perceived in consumer-activist America, but this activism is out of sight and mind when it comes to the very same companies advertising in Russian media. “We all talk about how horrible Russian TV is—how it does hate speech, incitement of violence, nuclear threats, it makes the lives of minorities hellish,” said Russian media researcher Peter Pomerantsev in The Atlantic. “But at the same time, Russian TV [is] full of Western advertising—IKEA, Volvo, Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble.”
Advertising works, naturally, so it is understandable why Western consumer companies want to run ads on Russian TV. Company shareholders demand both returns on their investments and growing overseas market share for their profitable products. Television advertising delivers both. Last year in Russia, “television was the leading advertising platform with 42% of the market and total revenues of over 150.8 billion rubles ($2.6 billion),” according to a U.S. Commerce Department August 2017 report. That Trump administration report adds that major advertisers in Russia are foreign consumer goods manufacturers in the “processed foods and beverages sector.” Read potato chips and soda pop.
Selling ether to those buying airtime to sell empty calories is an easy way to channel cash to Putin’s media cronies, who set rates and skim profits for their personal and political use. Russian airwaves are owned and licensed by the state, but are a far cry from a public resource. In Putin’s Russia, everything is run to serve and sustain his regime.
Western consumers need to demand that no more ad dollars be spent on promoting sexist, racist, anti-Semitic, anti-American news, information and "entertainment" in Russia or any other overseas media markets. Consumer companies willing to shift their ads from a politically incendiary Sean Hannity need to realize that the money they spend in Russia is helping undermine America's political system and civility. They need to stop it now.