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The Facebook ad boycott has to be indefinite to actually work

Unilever, Diageo, Coca-Cola, Starbucks, and other marketers ditching the social network is great PR, but there needs to be more to have any real impact.

The Facebook ad boycott has to be indefinite to actually work
[Photo: Thought Catalog/Unsplash]

In the not-so immortal words of Supreme Leader Snoke, there has been an awakening—have you felt it?

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Over the last week, a growing list of brands and marketers, large and small, have joined in the #StopProfitForHate campaign of boycotting advertising on Facebook, in response to the sheer amount of hate speech and divisive content on the platform, and its long-standing tolerance of problematic posts by President Trump and his campaign. It began with civil rights groups such as the NAACP and the Anti-Defamation League as well as Color of Change, Free Press, Common Sense, and Sleeping Giants, then was quickly picked up by outdoor brands such as the North Face, Patagonia, and REI.

Soon after, big names with bigger ad budgets such as Unilever, Coca-Cola, Honda, Diageo, Starbucks, Verizon, Hershey Co., Levi’s, and Beam Suntory joined the cause. Just yesterday, Ford, Adidas, and Clorox signed on.

Is this an awakening of conscience in corporate America, swept up in the momentum of civil unrest and collective calls from consumers and employees to embrace actively a more equal future? Have we reached a tipping point where the sheer amount of hate and toxicity spewed out by our feeds has become a weight too heavy to bear any longer?

Maybe.

Follow the money

Any observer of modern business is familiar with the simple, yet illustrative concept of “follow the money,” and the Facebook ad boycott is no exception. It may have started with not-for-profit groups, but the snowballing sign-ups by big brands and marketers over the last week must also be viewed through the lens of the pandemic.

Over the past few months, many marketing departments across all major brands have already been fundamentally changing (read: slashing) their budgets and media spending for the rest of the year. One marketing exec I spoke to, on condition of anonymity, said their company had already canceled all the media they could through the fourth quarter.

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And if they weren’t cutting, they were renegotiating.

Either way, cutting off ad spending on Facebook for the month of July, or even the rest of 2020, isn’t necessarily a move of defiance, but perhaps one of extreme convenience. Not only do these brands save the money they had already planned to reserve, but now they also get an added PR boost attached to it.

Cutting your ad budget and reaping earned media plaudits for joining this boycott is a marketer’s dream come true.

Some action is still better than none at all, but still, too many of these brands joining this boycott have not exactly been crystal clear on what participating in a boycott of Facebook or social media actually means. For some, it just means no Facebook advertising in the United States, but they’re continuing to do so globally. For others, it means ditching Facebook, but sticking with Instagram (from Facebook, as the app reminds you every time you open it). For yet another cohort, as Shoshana Wodinsky pointed out in Gizmodo on Friday, “It might mean pulling their ad dollars from Facebook and Instagram, while continuing to spend big bucks on the Facebook Audience Network, which runs ads targeted toward particular Facebook users across a slew of third-party apps they might download, including TikTok and Tinder.”

The fact that no regular person really understands how digital targeted advertising works plays to brands’ (and Facebook’s) advantage.

Diageo, for example, confirmed with Fast Company that its spending pause is global, and that it doesn’t use Facebook Audience Network. Meanwhile, the North Face told me in a statement that its boycott did include Facebook Audience Network, but only Facebook in the United States for July, and it would “continue to use Instagram for organic posting on our channels during this time.”

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The boycott got a boost in attention after Facebook stock took a dip late last week, but analysts aren’t fretting over financial impact. In a note to clients, MKM Partners executive director Rohit Kulkarni said Facebook is looking at less than a 5% hit to revenue, reiterating that most of the social network’s revenue comes from mobile direct ads and small-business marketing. “FB has more than 160 million registered businesses globally and 8 million paying advertisers,” he wrote.

Facebook made $70 billion in ad revenue last year. According to Pathmatics, the top 100 advertisers accounted for $4.2 billion in Facebook advertising in 2019, or about 6% of the platform’s ad revenue. A small drop in a gargantuan bucket.

What companies need to do

Although the financial consequences don’t appear to be dire, the impact of some of the world’s biggest brands standing against Facebook is still a PR problem for the social behemoth. Holding out for the month of July, though, will barely register a blip.

The only thing that will make this boycott more than a corporate feel-good vanity project is to make it indefinite and tie it to a specific list of demands around how the social network polices hate speech and other problematic posts. And brands will need to be vocal about that, too.

On Monday, in a nod to the impending boycott, Facebook announced that it would seek an external audit of its content moderation systems. The Stop Hate For Profit campaign responded by saying none of Facebook’s promised steps would “make a significant dent in the persistent hate and racism so prevalent on the largest social media platform on the planet.”

To have any impact on Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook will require loud, sustained pressure. Companies have already cut spending through the end of the year, so that commitment beyond July should be an easy one. For those considering slinking back come August, do they seriously think hate speech on Facebook is going to get any better between now and then? Or November 3, the date of the presidential election?

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Whether it’s the sad piano music or blank black Instagram posts, brands have used both the pandemic and anti-racism protests as an opportunity to appear more human, to make promises of doing better, and profess a commitment to being part of the solution.

On the other hand, as Bob Hoffman wrote in his Ad Contrarian newsletter this week addressing his industry, “We could have ended FB’s subversion of decency any time we wanted to. Now we’re all puffed up and righteous about pulling ads from FB for 30 days. We’re pathetic.”

This is the time for marketers to grow a spine, take advantage of their reduced budgets, and match Zuckerberg’s resolve to keep Facebook a cesspool of hate and division, with some of their own.

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About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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