Interesting news this week from the Times, which suggested in a front-page splash that many big brands, including universities, cosmetics companies and car manufacturers, have been inadvertently funding international terrorism through advertising on Youtube.
Though these companies claim no prior knowledge of how the site works – or how its algorithms match videos to brands – the investigation found their adverts on propaganda clips for groups as varied as Combat 18 to Boko Haram.
The headline ‘Big brands fund terror‘, however, only tells half the story – as very often banning big brands, or stifling and restricting their right to advertise, can have the exact same effect.
The historical example, of course, is always the US Prohibition – when banning alcohol enabled criminals to profiteer from both smuggling and illegal distillation and brewing of sub-par alcoholic beverages. More recently, though, the introduction of plain packaging for cigarettes in the UK and elsewhere has made it easy for criminals to exploit black markets in the supply of illegal and counterfeit tobacco products. Apart from plain packs being easier to counterfeit, the trade is helped by the inflated ‘official’ prices – for example, 77% of RRP in the UK goes in tax.
So who are the Mister Bigs? Sales of the illegal cigarettes and tobacco have been traced by the FBI and others to such interntionally proscribed groups as Hezbollah, along with the Taliban, and even the North Korean government. Which, on the face of it, doesn’t seem much better than enabling the aforementioned groups to profit from legal advertising streams.
The Times is no doubt feeling very pleased with itself for revealing the Youtube anomaly (although it doesn’t consider whether adverts extolling the benefits of package holidays and other consumer delights may soften the views of murderous jihadis). However, it has never to our knowledge launched a serious investigation into the illicit production and smuggling of cigarettes.
One wonders if the elitist wing at the Thunderer is put off by the inevitable conclusion. Namely that, until Hezbollah, the Taliban and North Korea fall – not to mention the gangsters who would happily step into their shoes – one consequence of cigarette-advertising and marketing bans is to spread terror.
Reversing flawed if well-intentioned legislation on plain packaging would not only be a mature response; allowing tobacco companies to identify their brands would be cheaper and more effective than military action in the world’s worst bad lands.
Our leaders have enough on their hands with the internet.