The shocking allegations against the News of the World have left retailers with a dilemma

I’ve not met anyone who hasn’t been shocked by the allegations about phone hacking against the News of the World. Even hardened hacks I know have been genuinely stunned by depths to which the paper’s journalists appear to have sunk to get a story, even though it’s taken a while for the media and political elites to catch on to the disgust in the country at large at its actions.

Retailers are vital to the News of the World. They sell it, and their adverts are its bread and butter. And the scale of the public backlash against the paper has left retailers with a real dilemma. For advertisers at the mass-market end of retailing, it’s a key route to market. It is - or perhaps I should say was - immensely powerful.

The Co-op has been the first retailer to take the step of withdrawing its advertising, because that’s what its members are telling it to do. Good for them I say - it shows the Co-op is a responsible business which listens to the people who own it. Other non-retail businesses - like Ford and NPower - have also said they’re reviewing their advertising.

But the Co-op is an unusual business and others face more of a dilemma. I’ve spoken to a few chief execs about this in the past couple of days and despite their utter revulsion at what the paper is said to have done, there seems no real appetite to respond to the very genuine demand from the public to act, in the name of a short-term PR gain.

The News of the World has - until now - had the biggest circulation of any paper. That means advertising there reaches a huge audience. I also sense a slight fear that if it does recover - which is by no means certain - it will set out to ‘get’ those businesses which have pulled their ads.

Several people have pointed out that while a lot of the big consumer brands which have pulled out of the paper have said they’re “reviewing” their accounts, that’s very different from cutting ties altogether, adding that it might be worth checking whether they’re back in its pages in a couple of months.

Personally I think the weight of public opinion may force big retailers like Tesco and Asda to change their minds. Pressure is mounting, as are the revelations, and with some big brands having broken ranks, it’s very likely other retailers will be forced to follow. After all, big retailers say they’re driven by what their customers want, and right now, what the British public wants is revenge on the News of the World.

Update Thursday 1030: Things are changing very quickly now. As I predicted in the original post, retailers are being forced to act by the weight of customer opinion. Sainsbury’s has now pulled its advertising out of the News of the World, citing customer concerns. This wasn’t on the agenda when I saw the company’s top management on Tuesday night, which shows how quickly the scandal is moving. Justin King has a better sense of PR than anyone and will have smelt the need to act. I expect others will be forced to change their position and I imagine Tesco won’t be far behind.

The other issue that’s being raised now is whether retailers should delist the paper. WH Smith may come under particular pressure. This is a step too far. Retailers can’t and shouldn’t be expected censor what their customers can and can’t buy. It should be its readers who decide whether the News of the World has a future or not when it comes to Sunday, not retailers.