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MEPs Urge Major Brands to Stop Ads Fueling Russian Disinformation in Balkans

Wesam Abo Marq Wesam Abo Marq
Food & Beverages
4th May 2024
MEPs Urge Major Brands to Stop Ads Fueling Russian Disinformation in Balkans
MEPs urged brands not to advertise on pro-Russian media (Getty)

European Parliament lawmakers have called on major brands such as Lidl, Coca-Cola, and L'Oréal to stop advertising on pro-Kremlin media platforms in the Balkans. The letter urges these companies to carefully reassess their advertising policies to prevent any inadvertent funding of outlets known for spreading harmful disinformation. 

MEPs Urge Big Brands Not to Advertise on Pro-Russian Media

In a letter obtained by POLITICO, European Parliament lawmakers, among them Bulgarian conservative MEP Andrey Kovatchev and 15 others representing various political affiliations, have urged major brands to halt advertising on pro-Kremlin media outlets in the Balkans. 

The letter specifically targets companies such as Lidl, Ahold Delhaize, Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola, A1, Yettel, Ferrero, Heineken, Mars, Mondelēz, L'Oréal, GSK (GlaxoSmithKline), Bosch, Samsung, and Amazon.

Bulgarian conservative MEP Andrey Kovatchev emphasized to POLITICO the critical importance of combatting "anti-democratic narratives from malign forces," particularly in the lead-up to a pivotal election year. European Union officials and disinformation experts have consistently raised alarms about the increasing proliferation of fake news online and foreign interference attempts aimed at influencing the outcome of the upcoming June parliamentary election.

Kovatchev clarified that many media outlets spreading pro-Kremlin disinformation often enhance their legitimacy by running advertisements from well-known companies. He underscored that these companies might not realize that their advertising budgets could indirectly contribute to supporting "pro-Russian propaganda channels."

The Balkan Free Media Initiative, based in Brussels, highlighted in 2023 report entitled “Defunding Disinformation in the Balkans” that global brands, through agencies and adtech firms, were allocating hundreds of millions of euros to Serbian and Bulgarian media known for disseminating government propaganda and narratives aligned with the Kremlin's stance on the Ukraine invasion.

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A screenshot of The Balkan Free Media Initiative’s report in 2023.

For instance, the two prominent Serbian stations, TV Pink and TV Happy, which heavily rely on advertising revenue from international companies, have been implicated in reporting false claims suggesting that Russia had been facing aggression and was compelled to undertake a "special military operation" in Ukraine, a euphemism coined by Moscow to describe its full-scale invasion of the country.

"Advertisers don’t place ads themselves on the internet, technology companies do it for them. Unfortunately, this is leading to information disorder," said Claire Aitken, the CEO of U.S. nonprofit Check My Ads.

"Right now, advertisers should be regularly checking their ads for this problem. And, because the funding of propaganda and hate is bad for all of us, we must all demand a more transparent advertising system," she said.

The lawmakers' letter stated that it is not mainly about money. The reputation and influence of these brands inadvertently confer legitimacy on these media outlets, amplifying the proliferation and influence of disinformation.

The MEPs are urging the companies to align with "truth and integrity" by reallocating advertising funds carefully away from platforms that undermine these fundamental values.

The Targeted Companies Comment on the Letter

A representative from GSK briefed POLITICO that the company does not engage in advertising activities in the Balkans.

Furthermore, Lidl's spokesperson stated that the company had already taken measures a couple of months before the letter and has notably reduced spending on channels such as Pink TV and Happy TV since mid-2023, ceasing advertising on the latter entirely in 2024. They further affirmed that Lidl has no contractual ties with any "pro-Russia media in Bulgaria."

The other targeted companies have not replied to the website's request for comment yet.

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