The launch of GB News, a UK news network promising to take on “woke warriors”, shows that brands cannot avoid getting involved in the broader cultural conversation, argues Brian Carruthers, WARC’s News Editor.

GB News, a big-budget upstart brand looking to shake up the TV news industry in the UK, launched on Sunday night to mixed reviews.

Many Twitter users remarked on the poor quality of the lighting and sound, while one of the news channel’s own interviewees, a grumpy Lord Sugar, asked: “I notice there’s been no advertisements yet. How are you going to make your revenue?”

The business mogul obviously hadn’t been paying attention as there were ads – indeed, after he’d spoken, the channel cut to a commercial break! In revenue terms, there’s also a subscription program coming, and GB News’ main backers – including US media group Discovery, Dubai-based investment fund Legatum and (Brexit-funding) hedge fund boss Sir Paul Marshall – have deep pockets, so it’s starting from a strong position.

GB News enters the “culture wars”

Industry-watchers have largely predicted that the fledgling network will borrow heavily from the playbook of Fox News, an influential, and controversial, conservative-leaning US news network. Such a theory was premised in no small part on some of GB News’ financial backers, its initial presenter line-up, and the early buzz around the station.

While Andrew Neil, GB News’ Chairman, is adamant the only thing it is borrowing from Fox News is the format, rather than an approach to content, the early signs seemed less sure: Right-wing pundits on GB News discussed “culture-war” issues such as whether England’s footballers should take the knee to protest racism, and whether the COVID-19 lockdown should be lifted completely.

And the determinedly “anti-woke” agenda of Neil’s new vehicle – “We will puncture the pomposity of our elites and politics, business, media and academia and expose their growing promotion of cancel culture for the threat to free speech and democracy that it is,” he said when defining GB News’ aims – has already riled the activist community.

“GB News may now be trying to shake off the Fox News label, but if to be ‘woke’ is to be anti-racist, then by branding themselves an ‘anti-woke’ TV channel, they seem to be making their intentions quite clear,” argued Stop Funding Hate, a campaign that pushes brands to stop running ads with media entities that “use hate and division to drive sales”.

Brands can no longer avoid the cultural conversation

Timely new research frames this debate in a useful way by suggesting the advertising industry can no longer avoid being part of the cultural conversation.

A survey by Unilever, the fast-moving consumer goods manufacturer, and Kantar, the research firm, has found that nearly one in two people from marginalised groups in the UK and US – defined as people from the Black, Hispanic, and Asian communities, as well as LGBTQ+ people and people with disabilities – feel they have been stereotyped in some way through advertising.

The study also highlights the expansive impact of this failing , as 71% of people believe stereotypes in media are harming the younger generation, while fewer than one in five believe that ads are representative of wider society.

In response, Unilever is broadening its 2016 commitment to “unstereotype” advertising: its ‘Act 2 Unstereotype’ program seeks to make structural changes to the entire marketing process in order to integrate diverse and inclusive thinking across all its brands.

Aline Santos, Chief Brand Officer and Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at Unilever, said: “If we want to see systemic change in society, we need to see systemic change in our industry. Act 2 Unstereotype helps brands create a generation free from prejudice. Inclusive marketing is not a choice anymore; we must act now.”

The scope of brand safety is getting wider

Neil, one assumes, would see Unilever and Santos as part of the “woke alliance” he is so opposed to; Unilever, one assumes, will be thinking carefully before advertising on GB News – especially as it has previously committed to conscious media buying that considers numerous dimensions of inclusivity.

Similarly, any brand embracing and extending the “unstereotype” concept is going to have to look beyond production and casting, and think harder about its media mix – already a number of brands espousing ethical positions have been called out for appearing on GB News.

In short, the scope of brand safety just got much wider.