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.