Unilever continues to work in Iran, including with companies affiliated with the country's terrorist military arm, though it has stopped advertising on U.S. social media platforms that it says have spread "divisiveness" and "hate speech" ahead of the presidential election.
The global soap and food manufacturer, which is based in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, announced last week that it would cease advertising to U.S. audiences on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram until after the 2020 election. The company pointed to the "polarized atmosphere" of the social media platforms, which conflicts with Unilever's "responsibility framework."
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Unilever operates in Iran through a foreign subsidiary and has advertised its products on Iranian government television, according to its annual reports. Unilever even conducted business with companies affiliated with Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps, which the United States designated as a terrorist organization in 2019. Unilever did not respond to questions about whether it would continue its business dealings in Iran.
Unilever's ad announcement that it would pump the breaks on social media advertising comes on the heels of a massive Democrat-led campaign to pressure Facebook into enacting stricter speech restrictions ahead of the presidential election. Joe Biden has blasted Facebook for its alleged failure to police "misinformation" from Donald Trump supporters on the platform, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) recently called on advertisers to boycott Facebook.
In a statement on Friday, Unilever said its decision to pull its ads was related to "divisiveness and hate speech during this polarized election period in the U.S."
"Continuing to advertise on these platforms at this time would not add value to people and society. We will be monitoring ongoing and will revisit our current position if necessary," said the company.
No such announcement was made regarding Unilever's business with authoritarian states, including countries that do not have free and fair elections. Unilever's most recent corporate disclosure statement from 2019 said it had no plans to halt its business operations in Iran.
"While we currently continue our activities in Iran, we are continuously evaluating such activities in the light of the evolving regulatory environment," said the company, while noting that its business in Iran represents "significantly less than one percent of Unilever's worldwide turnover."
Revenue made in Iran came from the "sale of food, personal care and home care products to the Hotel Homa Group, which is owned by the Social Security Organization of Iran, and IRR Mohammad Rasoullah Pharmacy & Kowsar ‘Veterans of IRGC,’ which are affiliated with the Islamic Republic Revolutionary Guard Corps," said the company statement.
"Income, payroll and other taxes, duties and fees (including for utilities) were payable to the Government of Iran and affiliated entities in connection with our operations," said the corporate disclosure. "Our non-U.S. subsidiary maintains bank accounts in Iran with various banks to facilitate our business in the country and make any required payments to the Government of Iran and affiliated entities."
In its 2018 annual report, Unilever also noted that it "advertised [its] products on television networks that are owned by the Government of Iran or affiliated entities." It is unclear whether the company continues to advertise on Iranian government television, and Unilever did not respond to a request for comment.
Iran is not the only authoritarian state where Unilever conducts business, according to reports. In 2015, the company partnered with Alibaba, the Chinese government-backed tech giant, to expand Unilever's marketing and digital advertising reach. The company has also had significant business operations in Russia since the early 1990s.