Could Boycotting the John Lewis Ad Really Prevent British Tabloids from Spreading Hate?

We speak to Richard Wilson, one of the founding members of Stop Funding Hate, who says that supporting John Lewis is funding the tabloids fuelling xenophobia in the UK.

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Nov 11 2016, 12:05am

Screenshot from the ad which we're not going to embed here, because, you know, boycotting the ad

John Lewis' Christmas ad is out, and as usual it's lovely and mushy and makes foxes look cute and has got everyone looking forward to spending lots of money on John Lewis products and wanting desperately to adopt foxes as pets. And it has this effect because the vibe it puts across is what we perceive Christmas in modern Britain to be about: a nice place filled with nice people being nice to each other.

Of course, that's not necessarily what modern Britain is. Yes, much of it is – you're kind and decent, your mum's probably alright – but post-Brexit, we've also become all too aware of the other people: those who would rather scapegoat than face facts; who find hatred an easier way to deal with an issue than compassion.

Linking these two seemingly disparate things is a campaign called Stop Funding Hate, which wants to remind consumers that companies we expect to spread good cheer every Christmas – John Lewis, M&S, the Co-op, Sainsbury's – also all pay large sums to take out adverts in tabloids like The Daily Express and The Daily Mail, which regularly plaster hateful, xenophobic messages all over their front pages. This, of course, is how media works. But they want you to consider, when you buy your gran a new pot from M&S because you love her, that money might wind up in Katie Hopkins' account for a column in which she calls refugees "cockroaches".

I spoke to Richard Wilson, one of the founding members of Stop Funding Hate, to ask him what exactly he hopes to achieve.

VICE: Hey, Richard. So why did you decide to release a big campaign to coincide with the John Lewis Christmas advert? I thought it was quite a nice one.
Richard Wilson: We just thought it was a good opportunity to ask some questions and get people thinking. There's a definite mismatch in the values presented in the video, of what we think of Christmas as being about, and the reality of what happens the rest of the year. People love the John Lewis Christmas ad, and the reason for that is that they are telling people a story that has truth about it; it is partly about who we want to be as a country and a people and a society. So in that respect it's really positive, because it shows that that is what people aspire to. I think that's why people react against these companies when they realise they are aligning themselves with tabloids that increasingly don't speak for the people, and seem to represent some negative aspects of human nature.

I feel like most people don't realise how their powerful their role as a consumer is, or how interlinked lots of companies are. Like how a lot of universities invest in fossil fuels, or how some charities invest in arms dealerships. Is it hard to make people aware of that? Do they care?
It hasn't been very easy to do. Most people don't know who advertises where, and they don't publish lists. So part of the campaign is to make people aware. And what we have found is that tens of thousands of people have been drawn to what we are saying and seem to agree. I think it definitely fits in with ideas like fair trade. A lot of people want to feel that how they are living their lives is making the world better rather than having a harmful effect. Our first video in August was viewed over 6 million times, and this new one, last time I checked, has over 400,000 views in half a day. So obviously there is a big concern out there that we are tapping into.

READ: Yes, But Which of These Newspaper Front Pages Is Most Hysterical of Them All?

Do you see yourself as fitting into a broader historical movement of using boycotting to challenge the ethical practices of large corporations?
It's actually kind of a new idea, in some ways. I think people get now that you don't want child labour and you don't want animal cruelty in a supply chain. But we're saying that you also need to think about the impact of advertising on our society. The closest thing would be the specific calls to boycott individual instances of outrage – the one occasion where a newspaper crosses a line, like when The News of the World was shown to be involved in phone hacking. But that was always a one-off. What we are saying is: this is an entire business model that doesn't work for our society. So we aren't just having a go at one newspaper, or even trying to get them shut down. We are trying to get to the underlying cause, which is that unfortunately these hateful headlines do sell papers, and by extension that sells advertising. So if you reward those papers with advertising, you are incentivising more hate.

But what comes first – the incentivising of hate or the public who will buy into it? Even if you take away the advertisers, will that change the fact that a lot of the British public seem to want to read xenophobic stuff that reflects their own views?
If you look at the Daily Express, this year they've done about 60 front pages about refugees and migrants, all of them negative. Now, I don't know anybody who thinks about that group of people that much, whatever they think. So it's clearly very purposefully directed. I think what it does is amplifies the fears and concerns people already have by creating threats to grab people's attention. So I think it is definitely fuelling these attitudes rather than just reflecting them.

Do you ever get criticism that boycotting certain papers or advertisers is a kind of attempt to curtail the freedom of the press?
I think what we want and urgently need is a free and effective and fair press that properly informs people. Because, at the moment, parts of the press are misinforming people. So we want to shift the balance of incentives so that it is no longer a good way of making money to run these very negative and misleading headlines. And we hope the outcome of that will be a better, healthier and fairer media.

We are not lawyers – we don't want to get into the question of regulation – and we are completely opposed to censorship. What we are saying is, actually, today there are things people can do as individuals that have been proven to work in other contexts. Using our power as consumers to reward good behaviour and also make our voices heard about things we don't like. Maybe, if enough people raise their voices, we think there is an appetite to do things a different way.

Thanks, Richard.

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