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And the brands played on: How the Facebook ad boycott fizzled out

The ad boycott against Facebook was supposed to be a drumbeat signaling change; a steady, crescendoing chorus of dissenters whose buying power was so strong that their absence would be noted and would bring true change to Facebook.

Starting in June with the announcement of the #StopHateForProfit campaign, advertisers hopped on board to be — as the initial press release stated — a response to “Facebook’s long history of allowing racist, violent, and verifiably false content to run rampant on its platform.”

But a month later, the Facebook ad boycott looks set to fizzle out. Facebook reported no drop in advertising revenue in the first few months of July as the boycott took hold.

What happened, activists say, has exposed exactly how much power Facebook truly has.

Facebook shrugs back

When the boycott first came to light — led by the NAACP and the Anti-Defamation League — the reaction from the advertising and media world was positive. Common Sense Media, one of the boycott organizers, said that more than 1,000 brands, including major names like Coca-Cola and Starbucks, signed on. Eventually, even Disney “dramatically slashed” its spending on the platform.

Facebook’s stock took a hit: It tanked 8% percent in one day after Unilever announced it would be pulling ads for the rest of the year, not just July, according to Marketwatch. Facebook subsequently did a quick about-face, saying the company would now begin hiding or blocking hateful content, even if politicians posted it.

But as July began, Facebook’s revenue didn’t take a hit. Zuckerberg reportedly told Facebook employees that advertisers “would be back.”

After a meeting between civil rights leaders and Facebook at the beginning of July, activists said they felt their concerns weren’t being taken seriously.

“They think they can wait us out,” said Jessica González, the co-CEO of Free Press, one of the activist groups that led the charge. González was in the meeting with Zuckerberg and the other Facebook chief executives. She claimed Facebook execs hadn’t even read the two-page list of demands that they had submitted about two weeks prior.

“They’re trying to wait out civil rights.”

“They’re trying to wait out civil rights. They’re trying to wait out their responsibility to human rights and facing down our democracy that they’re fucking up,” she told Digital Trends. “That’s the attitude. That’s offensive to us, and it’s offensive to advertisers.”

For the Anti-Defamation League’s CEO Jonathan Greenblatt, the response from advertisers was “an encouraging lesson,” but the month has taught them “just how widespread concerns about Facebook and its policies regarding hateful speech, racist speech, and misinformation really are,” he wrote in an email to Digital Trends.

“We’re not overly optimistic that Facebook will suddenly start moderating their hate content.” He pledged that the campaign will “only expand and intensify from here.”

But it’s unclear if brands will continue to back the activists.

The return of the brands

Digital Trends contacted 15 of the biggest names that publicly announced their support for the boycott. Of those, five did not respond to the request for comment. Levi Strauss and Microsoft, both said they had no comment, although Microsoft was one of the firms that cut the most ad dollars from Facebook.

REI, for one, said that since #StopHateForProfit “specifically asked companies to pull advertising spending from Facebook properties during the month of July … we are doing exactly that. We reinvested that money back into other areas of our business. Beyond that, we won’t be providing additional information.”

Adidas sent a statement confirming that they were “encouraged by the initial steps Facebook had taken and therefore will now resume advertising on its platforms.” Patagonia told Digital Trends it “didn’t have an update with next steps.”

The North Face, the first big brand to hop on board with the campaign, said in an email that it will “resume our working relationship with Facebook and Instagram in August,” but that it and parent company VF Corporation will be holding “regular check-ins with the Facebook team to continually evaluate their progress and determine on an ongoing basis if they are a partner and platform that upholds our values.” Those regular check-ins would be happening “at least once a month if not more regularly,” but did not directly respond to whether North Face would be prepared to remove its ads again.

Puma, similarly, told Digital Trends that yes, it would also be putting its ads back. “We are encouraged by the progress that has been made in regards to tackling hate speech, racism, and discrimination on Facebook’s platform,” a Puma spokesperson said in a statement. “We have aggressively been pushing for change, and in our conversations, Facebook has been receptive. We plan to continue to work towards change with them. In the United States, we will resume advertising on August 1.”

Chipotle and Denny’s said that they would continue the boycott, and keep ads off of Facebook for the month of August.

The Clorox Company, for its part, said it would be joining with Unilever in suspending its Facebook ads through December. “We will maintain our planned level of advertising spending but shift to other media,” a company spokesperson said in an email to Digital Trends. “We will continue to monitor this situation and revisit our position as needed.”

Coca-Cola, arguably one of the biggest brand names, told us in a statement that it would be returning its ads to YouTube and LinkedIn, but that advertising “will remain paused on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter globally.”

“The Coca-Cola Company paused all activity across social media platforms globally in order to reassess our internal policies,” a spokesperson said. “We also used this time to communicate to our social media partners our expectation of greater accountability and transparency. And while we’ve made progress, our journey is not complete.”

Facebook did not respond to a request for comment as to whether the boycott had, in fact, made it look more closely at its policies or consider reform. During Wednesday’s Capitol Hill hearing, Zuckerberg said Facebook cared about its advertisers, but wouldn’t base policy on their desires.

Jillian York, the director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said the boycott appears to have had little effect.

“It feels like we haven’t really learned anything,” York told Digital Trends. “There wasn’t much of a reaction. The only kind of pressure [Facebook] seems to respond to is the kind that comes from the U.S. government, and to a lesser extent, Germany, France, and Israel.”

At the same time, York said, she was wary of too much government intervention. “I don’t trust these [social media] companies or the government to get it right,” she said, saying she was most concerned that platforms learn to moderate content in a way that is “fair and just.”

“Content moderation is impossible at scale, many other folks have said this,” York said. “If it’s impossible, then we’re dealing with an intractable problem.”

She hoped, at least, that this would inspire some sort of rethinking about the way Facebook engages with its users about its policies.

A new hope

In the end, the way forward is murky for everyone involved. Facebook has made overtures about “examining policies,” and touted the fact that an EU report found they were “making progress” on countering hate speech. But the company has been largely immune to the activists’ demands.

The coalition has a list of fixes and we still want them all to be enacted,” said Mozilla’s interim chief marketing officer Mary Ellen Muckerman, in an email statement. “We would like Facebook to demonstrate true willingness to take responsibility and ownership for their actions. The time for platitudes about ‘taking it seriously’ and ‘being on a journey’ is long past.”

“There hasn’t been a lot of change,” said Katherine Doble, the president of Ingage Biz, a digital marketing firm that helps small and medium-sized businesses. “Companies are finding themselves in a Catch-22. Some might silently transition back, they might be feeling the impact of diminished sales and lower traffic.”

For now, Doble said, Facebook is still the biggest name in the game.

“Facebook and Instagram ads are huge in the sense of, that’s where you’re going to find your target audience,” she said. “Especially when it comes to businesses that don’t have recognizable names. When you’re an REI, and you’re looking for hunting supplies, you know you’re looking for REI. But when you’re a beginner, you’re really reliant on these platforms to build up and establish a brand, especially right now when there are limited outreach options.”

As long as that’s true, Facebook has little incentive to change.

Jim Steyer, CEO and founder of Common Sense Media, said that Facebook has immense power in the advertising sphere. Common Sense Media is an organization that promotes safe technology and media for children.

The campaign has put a spotlight on just how much control Facebook has over online advertising,” Steyer said in a statement to Digital Trends. “When Mark Zuckerberg can brazenly declare that advertisers ‘will be back’ he’s saying that they have nowhere else to go, because Facebook has a monopoly on its reach and consumer targeting capabilities that it offers to advertisers. No other platform comes close to what they can provide in terms of access to our kids, and we need to ensure the proper protections are in place.”

Doble said that it was likely brands would being quietly putting their ads back on Facebook on August 1st, which she described as “disheartening.” Now, it’s up to activists like her and Steyer to help bigger brands maintain the pressure. And the public might be on their side.

González cited a poll administered by the firm Accountable Tech that found that more than 80% of those surveyed think Facebook does more harm than good, and that Mark Zuckerberg’s unfavorability ratings rival those of President Trump.

She also said it was interesting to see how many people agreed with the activists’ stance, even if they weren’t aware of the boycott. “People were already feeling that Facebook was a problematic platform,” she said. “I’ve been doing anti-hate work for more than 10 years, and usually it doesn’t break the surface like this, but this really hit people.”

Does this mean Facebook is prepped for change? Activists doubt it.

“One thing is for certain — our work is not done at the end of July,” Greenblatt said.

Update 8/3/2020: Added statements from Chipotle, Denny’s, and Mozilla.

Maya Shwayder
I'm a multimedia journalist currently based in New England. I previously worked for DW News/Deutsche Welle as an anchor and…
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