Over the past couple of weeks, a who’s who of over 500 brands, including Verizon, Coca-Cola, Unilever, Levi’s, Starbucks, Reebok, Adidas, and Ford, announced they would withdraw their advertising from Facebook for the month of July or longer. Many were responding to the #StopHateForProfit campaign, organized by a coalition of civil rights and public interest groups that includes the Anti-Defamation League, NAACP, Color of Change, Common Sense, Free Press, and Sleeping Giants, “United in solidarity with targets of online racism, antisemitism and hate.” Some may have also been influenced by the loosely organized advertising and technology industry collective that uses the hashtag #DetoxFacebook as a call to action against Facebook’s content moderation practices. And some may have decided on their own that this time of great reckoning against structural and systemic racism in the United States was the time to affect real change in online communities.
Whatever the motivation, their efforts seem to have had an impact — at least a little. An hour after the announcement from Unilever — one of the most influential brands in terms of marketing trends — and a subsequent drop in stock price of almost eight percent, Facebook announced that it would start labeling political speech that violates its rules and take other measures to prevent voter suppression and protect minorities from abuse. Is this a harbinger of real change?
Only time will tell. As a former marketing executive with more than 20 years of experience planning digital marketing for Big Brands, including display, video, and social media advertising, I know we’ve been here before.
After the 2016 Cambridge Analytica privacy scandal, the hashtag #DeleteFacebook began trending in social media (mostly to encourage users to delete their accounts) and the calls to advertisers to leave the platform began. It was also in late 2016 that the company first communicated that it would “begin allowing more items that people find newsworthy, significant, or important to the public interest — even if they might otherwise violate our standards.” In fact, that’s about when activist Twitter account Sleeping Giants began its own campaign to “make bigotry and sexism less profitable.”
In early 2017, the CEO of the world’s largest advertising agency described a “watershed moment” in which Facebook had to “exert more control over content” or risk losing more advertisers’ dollars (several major global advertisers had already put theirs on pause). Again in early 2019, Facebook came under criticism from advertisers, this time for its decision not to require fact-checking on ads bought by politicians (even though the advertisers’ ads would continue to be disapproved if deemed false). Soon after, Facebook communicated that the platform would not fact-check, label, or remove posts that contain inaccurate, misleading, or inflammatory content. Mark Zuckerburg, Facebook’s CEO, defended the policy by arguing, as Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer, first did about “fake news” in 2017, that Facebook would not be “an arbiter of truth.” That meant advertisers’ branded ads were being held to a higher standard than elected officials’ — and yet those fact-checked ads could still run next to misleading content. (That’s when I began my own efforts to enlist chief marketing executives to be more responsible in their practices.) I’m not even counting the rounds of errors and snafus in measuring and reporting, including the infamous “pivot to video” in early 2016 that was based on reporting errors as high as 80 percent. No wonder Facebook recently acknowledged that the company “suffers from a trust deficit” with advertisers.
Each of these events resulted in apologies, commitments to do better, and… record earnings for Facebook. Weeks before #StopHateForProfit launched, another activist Twitter account, DetoxFacebook, called for people to take to social media to encourage brands not to advertise on Facebook using the hashtag #WeDontBuyHate. Their posts listed the Twitter handles of major advertisers. Despite the efforts of both of these campaigns, however, there’s still quite a list of advertisers currently expressing their intent to stand with the civil rights community and the constitutionally-protected right to protest — while advertising on Facebook.
Maybe this time is different. Against the backdrop of a prolonged global reckoning with structural racism and injustice, it may be more viable — even necessary — for advertisers to find other ways to reach their audiences. In fact, Sleeping Giants noted in a Twitter post that the #StopHateForProfit campaign “is not about damaging Facebook’s bottom line, it’s about a broader reckoning around the platform’s lack of moderation of hate and disinformation.”
To be sure, despite their enormous budgets, the brands that have now put their social media on pause represent a miniscule portion of Facebook’s auction revenue. Among their eight million advertisers, most of their volume is in the long tail of small business and individual entrepreneurs (that is, a very large number of very small advertisers). But these familiar brands hold some sway over public opinion, and the market seems to have seen them as harbingers of a broader trend (though Facebook’s stock price has since recovered). Lastly, while it may be easy to turn off social media advertising in July (a sleepy advertising season wedged between Dads-and-Grads and Back-to-School, even before a global advertising downturn brought on by the pandemic), it may be hard for advertisers to explain why they’re turning it back on.
So maybe this really is a big reckoning and we’ll see lasting change in the incentives that drive Facebook’s business model — I hope so. But Facebook is operating in a complex political environment, and I believe it will take more than an advertiser boycott to compel Mark Zuckerberg to make meaningful change. Even those behind the #StopHateForProfit campaign noted that Facebook’s response so far is a “small number of small changes” that won’t make a dent in the problem. And sadly, a recent civil rights audit report conducted with encouragement of civil rights organizations and members of Congress confirms Facebook has a long, long way to go to end discrimination, protect participation in democratic processes, and protect vulnerable communities.
It will likely take regulatory action (which requires increased political demands, not just economic ones) to offset Facebook’s scale and dominance, create more competition, and introduce more restrictions on privacy, as well as address Facebook’s approach to community standards and content moderation. (My colleagues at Public Knowledge have framed broader policy solutions to rein in the platforms, including a dedicated regulatory agency.) It may take additional solutions, but I’m hoping the advertising community will continue to use their leverage to make lasting change.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons