Is Facebook the winner of the Facebook ad boycott?
With a flip of the calendar page, the advertiser boycott of the social media giant Facebook has come to a close. The shocking freeze on the platform’s advertising during the month of July swept in 1,100 major brands that scaled back or went cold turkey; it challenged the agencies that serve those brands; and it enveloped rival social media sites like Twitter, too. But now the 31 days have elapsed, leaving the question, just what did the boycott accomplish, and what do brands do now?
Its organizer, Stop Hate for Profit, declared the boycott a victory. “This campaign literally forced an unprecedented conversation about Facebook’s harm to society,” says Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, one of boycott’s instigators, adding that it “literally galvanized the public.”
The exercise undoubtedly pressured Facebook into changing its policies about moderating hate speech; the company is addressing Stop Hate for Profit’s 10 demands, will hire a leader with a civil rights background and will conduct independent audits of offensive content on its platform.
But big brands now find themselves caught in the middle. Many jumped on board to be good brand citizens—or at least to appear to be—even though it hurt their businesses during the pandemic, when their ad options were limited. And for all their good intentions, it’s become clear from Facebook’s recent earnings that their big-budget pullbacks didn’t make a dent in the titan’s ad coffers, since the vast majority of the social media company’s ad base comes from small businesses.
The decision is now theirs whether to return, a call made tougher by the belief by some marketers that there are still no guarantees that brands can avoid the well-documented dark side of social media, specifically Facebook.
“You’re screwed if you’re on the record as having been in the boycott,” says one senior marketer at a major brand that won’t return to Facebook in August or anytime soon, despite the official end of the July ad freeze. “If you go back in August, first, what context do you have that they’ve addressed these issues materially? You have some superficial things that they’ve said.”
Why it happened
The seeds of the boycott were sown not on Madison Avenue but at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It was President Donald Trump who sparked the anti-Facebook crusade by angering civil rights groups when he posted on Twitter and Facebook “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” suggesting a violent crackdown on people protesting the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. Twitter took a step to penalize Trump's account, while Facebook was seen as acquiescing to the president.
The following month, civil rights groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, NAACP, Color of Change, Sleeping Giants, Common Sense, Free Press formed Stop Hate for Profit, mobilizing against Facebook’s handling of hate speech and disinformation. It came as the Black Lives Matter protests swept the U.S. and world, with masses rallying in the streets and online to support the legacy of Floyd.
Some 1,100 brands joined, standing up for what they claimed were guiding principles to not support hateful content. Brands like Unilever, Coca-Cola, Starbucks, Ford, Honda, Pfizer, Adidas, The North Face rallied to announce their participation.
The civil rights groups wanted brands to stop ad spending on Facebook properties, including Instagram, through July. From the start, however, there was some confusion about what exactly constituted solidarity with the movement. Brands like Unilever or VF Corp. own multiple product lines and it was unclear if all entities within a parent company would halt spending on Facebook.
There are critics who say some brands might not have been in the boycott for the right reasons. They say some were cowed into making an example of Facebook at a politically raw moment, at the height of civil rights protests when companies feared the spotlight being turned against them. Boycotting Facebook became an easy protest gesture to show social consciousness, and now marketers want to ease back in as quietly as they can.
For big-spending brands, avoiding Facebook is just not sustainable. Facebook is one of the only places a senior marketing leader is assured to reach large audiences. It’s easy to advertise there, and during the coronavirus pandemic it’s even harder to find anywhere else to go.
“If you have a $7.5 billion budget, you can’t lay that off elsewhere, you can’t buy around Facebook,” says another senior marketer at a major brand. “That’s exactly the dilemma these companies are finding themselves in.”
Many marketers who spoke for this story did so on the condition that they remain anonymous, because some are close partners with Facebook or work for agencies that count Facebook as clients.
One media buyer, who works at a large agency, said that most clients who joined the boycott, did so reluctantly. It shows that many brands were not thrilled about having to shut down advertising on one of the most important marketing channels just when their businesses could have used the exposure the most, during a worldwide pandemic and economic downturn.
"Many clients are still up in the air,” the media buyer says. “I also would say that I don’t think many clients who paused did so for the ‘right’ reasons."
The groups behind the boycott, like the ADL, say there is no cause for cynicism, that Stop Hate achieved what it set out to accomplish, and that Facebook has taken steps outlined in the demands of the boycott. Facebook has promised to hire an executive with experience in civil rights. Facebook is submitting to an independent audit of its handling of hate speech and disinformation. The company has even begun to fact-check Trump more forcefully.
Broadening the boycott
One of Unilever’s most socially active brands, Ben & Jerry’s, was among the first advertisers to stand with Stop Hate for Profit, announcing its intention to pull back advertising in late June. A few days later, Unilever said it was committing the remainder of its nearly 400 brands to the cause, citing the polarized” political climate as not being conducive to major brand advertising. It further said it would avoid all social media through the rest of the year. However, data from Pathmatics found that five of its prestige beauty brands actually continued to advertise on Facebook platforms.
There were some critics who thought that Unilever diluted the reasons for the campaign against Facebook by including other social media properties, but that was exactly the kind of argument that Carolyn Everson, Facebook’s VP of global business solutions, and other Facebook executives made to marketers: If a brand boycotts Facebook over claiming there is a toxic atmosphere, then those brands would have to pull back from rival platforms.
They offered not-so-subtle reminders that hate speech and disinformation can be seen in social media posts and videos from YouTube to Twitter to Snapchat. “Many of you have expressed concern that a boycott on Facebook is unlikely to stop there, boycotts tend to spread to other platforms/media and boycotting in general is not the way for us to make progress together,” Facebook’s Everson wrote to ad clients in an June email. “I also really hope by now you know that we do not make policy changes tied to revenue pressure.”
In late June, Coca-Cola followed Unilever by including more platforms in its ad pause, including Twitter, YouTube and LinkedIn, alongside Facebook and Instagram. Coca-Cola said it will return to YouTube and LinkedIn, but plans to still avoid Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
Deciding to return
Unilever last week said its policy to avoid social media for the rest of the year remains, but Ben & Jerry’s has said it will return to advertising on Facebook to promote political causes that it cares about, which falls under one of the loopholes of the boycott. The organizers made exceptions for political causes, social issues and nonprofits, because of how significant a role the platform plays in reaching sympathetic audiences.
“In the U.S., we are stopping all paid advertising for our products on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter for the rest of 2020, both to send a message to Facebook and Twitter, and also because this election is just too important,” a Ben & Jerry’s spokesman told Ad Age. “We will, however, continue to run paid advertising in support of our ongoing activism campaigns that focus on racial justice and equity, and specifically our 2020 election work.”
Other brands just don’t know what to do, caught between a publicly stated commitment to social responsibility and the need to get back to business as usual. So far, the response has been mixed, with some major advertisers saying they will avoid Facebook and Instagram. Others say they will avoid all social media, and others are jumping back in.
Ford, which cut all social media ads in July, now says it will return to YouTube and Pinterest, but stay away from Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat.
Facebook, meanwhile, disputes that brands have cause to maintain the rebellion. Everson says the company has already made significant changes, and outlined a clear path for brands to measure its progress in the coming months.
In fact, on Thursday, the day before the official end of the boycott, Everson sent a personal guarantee to marketers that Facebook was about to implement some of the strictest brand safety protocols in the industry and open the platform to independent checks that would verify the work.
“That is my job, my job is to be the face of Facebook to the industry, and take their feedback, get their feedback, go back into the company, ensure that we have the right actions in place,” Everson says in a phone interview on Friday. “So I can go and look people in the eye that I have known for 20-plus years and say we’re committed and we’re on this and here’s the timeline. Here’s a set of deliverables, which we have sent out yesterday to many, many clients. They have the timeline in their hands and I’ve said to them, ‘hold us accountable.’”
With these assurances, some brands on the sidelines have been convinced. The North Face, the first major advertiser to join Stop Hate for Profit in June, says it is back. Novartis and Pernod Ricard say they are ready to resume spending. Joshua Lowcock, chief digital officer at UM and global brands safety officer at Mediabrands, says that many agency clients are ready to return to Facebook, but some holdouts remained. Lowcock also sits on what’s known as the Facebook Client Council, which is a group of agencies and brands that work with the social network to identify industry-wide issues and fix them for marketers.
“As we reach the end of the boycott, I would emphasize the position that the organizers made, which is that Facebook made some concessions,” Lowcock says. “What’s important is to hold Facebook accountable to the promises that it has made. Let’s be realistic, Facebook’s ability to achieve any of the asks by the end of July was limited.”
Facebook’s bankbook is fatter than ever, but the organizers of the boycott were never under the illusion that they could strike a serious blow to the company’s bottom line. And they didn’t: The company issued second-quarter earnings on Thursday, which covers April through June, so it’s not reflective of what happened in July. Still, Facebook said that its financial outlook essentially remained the same during the period of the protest.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg also triumphantly announced in an earnings call that there are now more than 9 million advertisers on his platforms, including Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger. Facebook had more than 8 million advertisers the last time it disclosed that number earlier this year.
Facebook generated $18.3 billion in ad revenue in the second quarter, an increase of 10 percent year-over-year, which was viewed as strong growth during the pandemic. Facebook benefited from the global shutdown because more people were home in need of communication, the kind that the social network provides. Facebook’s monthly user base grew to 3.14 billion people on its network of apps, up from 2.99 billion in the first quarter.
“Some also seem to wrongly assume that our business is dependent on a few large advertisers,” Zuckerberg told Wall Street analysts, striking a defiant tone that appeared aimed at commentary around the boycott. “Now, while we value every single one of the businesses that use our platforms, the biggest part of our business is serving small businesses.”
What did it accomplish?
Facebook executives say they do not bow to outside pressure when making their decisions. On the second-quarter earnings call, Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, reiterated that point, too.
“I think oftentimes, when companies are boycotted, it is because they don’t agree with what the boycotters want and that’s not true at all here,” Sandberg said. “We completely agree that we don’t want hate on our platforms, and we stand firmly against it. You know, we don’t benefit from hate speech, we never have. Users don’t want to see it, advertisers don’t want to be associated with it.”
In addition to concessions like hiring the civil rights leader, Facebook has tapped the Media Rating Council to conduct an independent audit of hate speech and offensive content on the platform. It’s also working with an industry group, the Global Alliance for Responsible Media, which was formed last year just for this type of situation. Brands and agencies launched GARM to tackle hate speech, come up with definitions for offensive content, and then hold internet platforms to those standards.
In many ways, Facebook is ahead of rivals on this front. It is the first major platform to agree to an MRC audit to analyze hate content, and it released a civil rights audit in July that dissected the business to understand how the platform has blind spots that could foster discrimination.
But there’s more work to be done. Advertisers are demanding a whole new system for News Feed, which is the stream of content that 1.8 billion users see every day. The News Feed is customized for every user, and advertisers say they want to know more about the context in which their ads run. “Clients need to know what they are next to, there needs to be third-party verification, and they need to allow clients to have a dashboard to be able to look back and see where the ads ran," said a media buyer at a large agency.
Tatenda Musapatike, who leads ad campaigns for a progressive digital nonprofit called ACRONYM, is a former member of Facebook’s political ads team. She says that Facebook’s changes and new commitments to brand safety show that the boycott served its purpose. She has been critical of the company, but thinks the boycott may have led the company reevaluate its corporate responsibility that aligns more closely with where the American people sit now.
“When you have some of the largest advertisers on the platform pausing for the moment to say, ‘Hey, we need you to address these issues that deeply concern us,’ and when people are willing to sacrifice profitable returns for their values,” Musapatike says. “That says a lot and I think it forces a company to reconcile how they’re thinking about their policies and political impact.”
Contributed: Jack Neff, Jeanine Poggi, Adrianne Pasquarelli, E.J. Schultz and Jessica Wohl