Why an organizer of the Facebook boycott continues to advertise on Facebook

Like all things Facebook: It's complicated

Hope everyone had a good holiday weekend; or whatever constitutes “good” or “holiday” or “weekend” these days.

We are now six days into the Facebook boycott-that’s-not-quite-a-boycott. And while it won’t be easy to tell the financial impact on the company, there are a few signals to see if it’s working. 

If you’re the kind of person that judges the efficacy of a company based on its stock performance, Facebook took a hit last week but then bounced up to where it was a month ago.

If you’re the kind of person that looks at quarterly earnings, it’ll be a few weeks, as the company releases its quarterly earnings on July 29th. And while 750 advertisers have tripped over themselves to say they’re boycotting Facebook in July, it’ll represent a tiny dent in the Facebook armor.

According to advertising analytics firm Pathmatics (which, by the way, is the biggest victor in the boycott, as every single reporter covering this has mentioned them), the top 100 biggest ad spenders on the platform only account for about 6 percent of the company’s revenue. 

Finally, as The Information reported last week, the company’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, during a company-wide town hall basically swatted the boycott away like a fly, said it’s a “reputational not an economic” issue and that “my guess is that all these advertisers will be back on the platform soon enough.”

As we talked about last week, this boycott smells for a lot of the companies who have hopped on like a P.R. push, with the much of media falling for it. 

Over the weekend, I spent some time cross referencing many of the companies who have joined the boycott, using the StopHateForProfit’s website, with Facebook’s ad library to see which companies are actually pulling spend, and I found some interesting things.

For starters, many of the companies on the list have either a) never spent a dime on Facebook advertising, or b) not spent on Facebook in a long time. 

For example, Starbucks, which joined the boycott last Monday (June 29), appears to have not started a campaign since 2019 (it looks like it ran from Oct 10, 2019 to March 29, 2020). The timing of the end of the campaign comes about a week before it announced it is closing 400 stores due to the impact of the coronavirus. 

The cynic might say, Well, if you’re closing stores and you lost $3 billion in revenue, perhaps you wouldn’t be spending money on ads anyway so you might as well join a boycott to get that earned media. 

Many of the 500 or so companies that boycott Facebook have never bought ads on Facebook. But they’re also companies that aren’t quite household names: Akyumen? Arc’teryx? AmazingRibs.com? Anjunabeats? Apollo Precision Tools? These are just the As.

But the most interesting thing—and perhaps I should have led with this—are the companies who said they are boycotting but continue to spend ad money on Facebook, including one of the organizers of the boycott: Color of Change.

According to Facebook's ad library, Color of Change has two active campaigns, spending between $800-$900 each attempting to reach several hundred thousand people. 

The civil rights advocacy organization told me via an email back-and-forth that the campaign is aimed at corporate America and businesses. 

“We’re not asking organizations or political campaigns— especially those already fighting against inequality by mission or existence— to stop running their asks,” said Brandi Collins-Dexter, senior campaign director for Color of Change. “We also have not asked politicians to join because this is explicitly not about left/right politics but the bigger issue around the ways the platform cynically profits from hate and disinformation to our communities’ detriment.”

It’s not hard to view this as a “Do as I say, not as I do” sleight-of-hand maneuver, telling people to pull their ad spend while the organization continues to pump money into Facebook; it’s not ok to let Facebook profit off of hate, but it’s ok if a nonprofit uses the platform to spread its message to its community who might not hear that message without the paid social juice.

Collins-Dexter pushes back on this, saying that there’s a clear distinction between telling a large company, “hey you can go a month without buying Facebook ads to sell shoes in the United States” vs let’s say...telling a community-based newspaper in Memphis that’s trying to curb a spike in COVID “hey, join in this symbolic gesture for the month.” 

“Because at the end of the day that’s what it is right?,” Collins-Dexter said. “Zuckerberg is already telling his staff that they don’t have to do anything about the hate speech on their platform even if 1000 companies hold ads in July, because come August there’s nowhere else for them to go. No one at Facebook is gonna end up in the poor house at the end of the month but in an ideal world this moment could force a reckoning in ways beyond purely financial.”

But if I wanted to boycott my local supermarket because they kept selling rancid meat, I wouldn't go back to that store to pick up milk. I'd go elsewhere. 

Collins-Dexter think this analogy isn’t quite right: 

“Facebook is problematically unique so there’s not an alternative platform like it down the street where you can buy your milk, so to speak. This is actually why the real work is in getting regulation and pushing for government to break up the company. It’s kind of like saying well if you want the police defunded then don’t call law enforcement when your house is getting robbed. It’s not a mutually exclusive proposition to want to see police departments lose money and ultimately be replaced while also recognizing that under current societal conditions there’s no other places to call to be made whole. The real problem is that regulators have failed in their responsibility to ensure that a Facebook doesn’t have billions of people on its platform with no competition to speak of.”

But nonprofits, let alone multibillion dollar companies, do have alternatives to where they buy their milk. They can go to Google; they can go to Amazon; they can go directly to publishers; they can through programmatic channels. Each one, of course, sells its fair share of rancid meat and sour milk, too, but there is choice. 

Collins-Dexter told me that Color of Change was not blind to the potential conflict of spending on Facebook while beating the boycott drum:

“We all had to ask ourselves— can we make this ask of corporations and we’re not willing to do it? Ultimately we made the decision that the long term ramifications for Black communities were too high— there are DA races we’re involved in through our PAC work, corrupt police officers still not being held accountable. So we made a choice and said “ok do we need to run Facebook ads to promote everything we’re doing that we would normally run ads for?” And we slashed our budget because we decided that no we don’t...but there are things where the stakes are too high and we have to draw that line for ourselves and we support others who also have to draw that line.” 

One of the challenges with boycotts (like this one, but in general, too) is the calculus we make. As Collins-Dexter put it:

“Even having to cheer for companies that join the campaign when every other day/month of the year they are the bad guy feels new for me eg telecom companies that have been anti net neutrality and have accelerated the digital divide for profit. It becomes a weird temporary game of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend...” 

Color of Change isn’t the only company tap dancing here. Brands like Volkswagen, Unilever, Puma and Burton have all run ads in July after saying they’re boycotting. Of course, they do come with caveats.

VW

According to Will Glock, spokesperson for VW, the company has three tiers of its business: tier one, ads directly from VW corporate; tier two, dealer level, but backed by corporate; tier three, anything strictly from the dealership. The company, Glock told me, has completely stopped its tier one advertising on Facebook globally, but is honoring its commitments for tier two. Volkswagen has a few campaigns running.

Unilever

Unilever has ads running on Facebook, but not in the U.S., according to Tom Langan, head of corporate affairs, communications & sustainable business North America for Unilever.

“While we support efforts to drive trust and transparency in the digital ecosystem, we have not joined any specific campaign,” Langan told me in an email. “Here is a link to our statement explaining why we have stopped paid ads on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter in the U.S. through at least the end of the year.”

Puma

After tweeting about Puma’s ad spend, the company reached out to me say that it has pulled all its spend. I checked the Facebook ad library and sure enough, the ads were gone. Journalism.

Burton

Burton, which has two active campaigns after announcing it will join the cadre of companies boycotting Facebook, has not responded to my request for comment.

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Michael Jackson, “Beat It”

Some interesting links:

  • Sex toy sales are up and publishers are seeing an opportunity to grasp (Digiday)

  • Police smash car window of man on way home from TV interview about police racism (The Guardian)

  • America’s enduring caste system (NYT)

  • As coronavirus surges in U.S., some countries have just about halted it (WSJ)

  • Silicon Valley Elite Discuss Journalists Having Too Much Power in Private App (Vice)