Can asking companies to not spend on Facebook for a month work?

Won't find moments in a box, but there's momentum happening

Over the weekend, Patagonia became the latest company to announce that it will be suspending its Facebook ad spend through the month of July. This followed decisions from The North Face and REI to also pull their spend. 

The #StopHateforProfit social activism campaign, a coalition from the NAACP, ADL, Color of Change, Sleeping Giants, and Common Sense, is calling on companies to pause their July Facebook ad spend. 

On its website, the group lays out its case for why companies should pause their spend:

They  allowed  incitement  to  violence  against  protesters  fighting  for racial justice in America in the wake of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor,  Tony  McDade,  Ahmaud  Arbery,  Rayshard  Brooks  and  so  many others.

They named Breitbart News a “trusted news source” and made The Daily Caller a “fact checker” despite both publications having records of working with known white nationalists.

They  turned  a  blind  eye  to  blatant  voter  suppression  on  their  platform.

Could they protect and support Black users? Could they call out Holocaust denial as hate? Could they help get out the vote?

They absolutely could. But they are actively choosing not to do so.

99% of Facebook’s $70 billion is made through advertising.

Who will advertisers stand with?

Let’s send Facebook a powerful message: Your profits will never be worth promoting hate, bigotry, racism, antisemitism and violence.

These are all very good arguments. Why would a company that says it has values put money into a company that is at odds with those values? Patagonia, for instance. has built a brand that is dedicated to walking the walk when it comes to a bevy of issues, so why fund a company that betrays them? 

In a statement to media outlets, Carolyn Everson, Facebook’s vp of marketing said: 

“We deeply respect any brand’s decision, and remain focused on the important work of removing hate speech and providing critical voting information. Our conversations with marketers and civil rights organizations are about how, together, we can be a force for good.” 

But watching companies take to social media to announce they are pulling their advertising from Facebook, and I have to imagine more will come out in the coming weeks, seems more like a flesh wound than a cut to the jugular.

We’ve been down Boycott Road before with minimal results. In 2018, the NAACP called to boycott Facebook; in 2017 and 2018, the two largest advertisers, P&G and Unilever, each told Facebook to clean up its act or they’d pull their very large spend. Tesla, Mozilla and Commerzbank all boycotted Facebook in 2018 for a bit. In 2013, Facebook responded to advertiser boycotts about hate speech by filtering content and setting up training.

The point is this: calls for advertiser boycotts on Facebook have been happening for a long time. 

Though sources say this time may be different. An agency leader not permitted to talk publicly about their clients’ or agency’s decisions on Facebook told me the industry has not seen this level of activism in clients before, and mixed with calls from these activists, there’s a “real energy”: 

“From an industry POV, the reality is a lot of clients are upset. I think they are looking for ways to exert more influence and more positive outcomes with the platform. The thing that’s different for Facebook is that there’s real energy in the client bases. When you have these huge companies [pull spend], particularly if they can get more organized, that pressure is different. To Facebook's credit, there's a reasonably high level of understanding, and that’s the difference.” 

Facebook, that $70 billion-a-year empire, doesn’t have a security flaw that allows a one-man fighter to fire proton torpedoes into a two meter hole causing a chain reaction that will eventually blow up the battle station (my kids are obsessed with Star Wars, and I’ve listened to a New Hope’s soundtrack twice this morning, already).

It’s not solely about ad spend. 

Plus, you can’t just call on companies to pull spend from Facebook; they would need to pull spend on Instagram, too. There needs to be a deeper understanding of the Facebook machine beyond “stop spending money for a month.”

The vampire squid, apologies to Goldman Sachs, is actually its web architecture; yes, advertising feeds into it as companies can target users at a detailed level, but Facebook works because people (and all the companies that use it) feed the beast with information on their pages and through their posts. And that is free. 

Want to hurt Facebook? Delete and deactivate your account. Don’t use the platform.

“Trying to drive a user boycott is a lot more difficult,” the agency exec said. “It’s why [StopHateForProfit] chose this side of the coin. But without doing both sides [advertiser boycott and user boycott], it’s not as effective.”

Facebook’s ad technology allows for advertisers to determine how likely a person is to buy a product based on the signals they’ve put in, their likes, their posts, but also every page they visit on the web. If you use Facebook and Instagram, even if you don’t spend money, you make it powerful. This is the devilish beauty of the company. 

And this is why such activism pushes against an ocean: Facebook’s ad technology is so embedded with the internet that it actually works, and what company will stop using a mechanism to help it make money? Unlike display ads, Facebook advertising actually helps companies solve their marketing challenges. 

It’s the Faustian bargain companies make: use Facebook, knowing it may not be what’s good for society, because it can help you make money.

As we discussed recently, Facebook has 8 million small business advertisers. These are the ones to convince to not spend. But that is a Sisyphean task. Let’s say these 8 million spend just $100/month on Facebook ads, that’s $800 million a month on ad revenue, or $9.6 billion a year. A far cry from its $69.7 billion it made in 2019, but still a lot of money. Wayfair, for example, generated $9.1 billion in 2019. 

And these 8 million advertisers, who spend more than $100/month, need Facebook now more than ever; between a non-existent local media landscape to place ads and a pandemic forcing store fronts to close and/or revamp their businesses, using the platform to tell people they’re still in business is vital. 

You want to hurt Facebook in its wallet? Get these mom and pop shops to not spend and not use the platform. This is tricky. (Another way to punish Facebook is for Congress to start regulating it.)

While asking companies to pause their advertising for a month might seem futile, the domino effect can be a powerful mechanism to get the company to pay attention. As more and more companies decide to pause their spend, maybe even pause their use of the site altogether, it sends a strong signal that Facebook needs to straighten up. 

Plus, all the media coverage around this P.R. stunt has to chip away at Facebook’s veneer. I mean, every single media company is writing about the boycott. Even dinky newsletters!

“Activism at this level is about two things: change and getting attention,” the agency exec said. “It’s a heck of a lot easier to get attention when boycotting Facebook than BoA. “

Getting companies to understand where their ad dollars go is important, and the shift companies are taking - from a hands-off approach to a more values-based one - are slowly happening. 

We’ve watched big brands do an about face on their racist histories, and that, I think, is the bigger play here: get brands to acknowledge their own houses first.

Capitalism is an intricate web, and whatever reckoning may or may not happen from social activists, the world is not cleanly divided into ALL right versus ALL wrong.

That said, companies, as evident from last week’s show of force from Quaker Oats/PepsiCo and Mars Inc., can do the right thing (especially when pressured).

It’s easier to play David to Facebook’s Goliath, trying to sling a rock at its forehead instead of going after the true culprits of crimes against humanity, companies and industries (banks; insurance companies; oil and gas companies; etc) that have actually done all the things the StopHateForProfit campaign rails against. But that story gets buried.

“If you're waking up every morning and target Goldman today because they fund derivatives for XYZ organization, that’s not gonna get you on the news,” the agency source said.

The other thing in the campaign’s favor: beyond it being a moment where clients are feeling emboldened and empowered to speak up against Facebook, so too are Facebook’s employees. 

“There’s real internal consternation at Facebook,” the agency source said. “There’s a sense among the employee base they're on the wrong track; and that’s different.” 

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Katy Perry, “Firework”

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  • 63 years later, a confession in a legendary Yankees scandal (NYT)

  • My Mother’s Dreams for Her Son, and All Black Children (The New Yorker)

  • Firework Complaints Increase By 230X In June As Officials Seek Supplier Crackdown (Gothamist)