Facebook’s wooden-headed determination to ignore its culpability in both the spread – and the corrosive impact – of hate speech and misinformation finally crashed headlong into commercial reality last week. Key advertisers have had enough, and the dam is breaking. 

As part of the #StopHateForProfit campaign more than 160 companies including some of the world’s biggest advertisers like Unilever and Coke, will boycott the social network in July, and for some far beyond the month.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg responded with a post on his own site saying the company remained committed to reviewing its policies ahead of the 2020 US elections. He also outlined Facebook’s approach to information about voting during the pandemic, fighting voter suppression, creating a higher standard for hateful content in ads, and labeling newsworthy content.

“I’m committed to making sure Facebook remains a place where people can use their voice to discuss important issues because I believe we can make more progress when we hear each other,” he wrote.

But while this latest attempt to hose down Facebook’s critics represented something of a retreat, it was immediately rebuffed by advertisers who said it was as too little too late.

On Saturday Australian time – Friday in the US –  Unilever, Coke, Levi Strauss, and Hershey became Facebook’s latest clients to announce they were pulling advertising from the site, and in some cases from other social networks like Twitter, for a period.

The message from all of these companies was consistent and exemplified by Coca-Cola CEO and Chairman, James Quincey’s statement that read, “There is no place for racism in the world and there is no place for racism on social media. ”

James Quincey, Coke CEO

“The Coca-Cola Company will pause paid advertising on all social media platforms globally for at least 30 days. We will take this time to reassess our advertising policies to determine whether revisions are needed. We also expect greater accountability and transparency from our social media partners,” he said.

Shares in both Facebook and Twitter were smashed as a result of the advertising industry’s stance. Facebook’s value dropped by $56 billion on Friday (US time) knocking  Zuckerburg from his spot as one of the three top billionaires according to the Bloomberg Billionaire Index.

He is now only the fourth richest person in the world. That’s gotta hurt.

While Friday was bad for Facebook, this most recent exodus of major advertisers was simply an acceleration. In recent days Honda, Patagonia, Verizon, Ben & Jerry’s, The North Face, Eddie Bauer, REI, Magnolia Pictures, and Viber also announced bans for varying periods. 

Momentum

The #stophateforprofit campaign which started as a slow burn is now snowballing. 

It has already forced an initial retreat from Facebook which announced that it will now put warning labels on posts by politicians that break its rules. However, this is unlikely to be enough. After too many disappointments in the past, its advertisers are calling it out for promising action but failing to deliver.

The current campaign of social activism against platforms like Facebook and Twitter that propagate hate speech began as a joint initiative in the US, led by the Anti-Defamation League, the NAACP, SleepingGiants, Color of Change, Free Press, and Common Sense who share a set of common values and concerns.

According to Liz Miller, VP and principal analyst, Constellation Research, these groups banded together to focus on the role that social media, and in particular Facebook, played in the spread of hatred and “verifiably false” content. 

Liz Miller, VP and Principal Analyst at Constellation Research

Miller told Which-50, “What started with a press release and a really pointed advertisement  really took off thanks to “near-constant social watchdogging by SleepingGiants.”

“It was a really powerful combination of public advertising and traditional noisemaking and some targeted and relentless social engagement at its finest. “

Miller said the early supporters were outdoor activist brands who commonly stand in lockstep with their customers on big issues. 

“It wasn’t too much of a shock to see The North Face, Patagonia, and REI take to the cause and take a stand early on.”

Likewise, she said, “Ben & Jerry’s has long been an activist brand, so again no real shock there.”

The momentum really started to pick up when more mainstream brands started to also take note, according to Miller. 

“I think the tipping point was Hershey and Verizon in the early hours of Friday and then finally Unilever and Coca-Cola by the end of the day…next up will come to the avalanche of follow-the-leaders.”

Miller noted that while some brands are taking a stand specifically against Facebook and their individual practices, others like Unilever and Coca-Cola are actually taking a step back from many if not all social media advertising to assess if the medium adds or detracts from their own social and community goals and missions.

“While these brands and their dollars are a big headline maker, I’d actually look at the digital-native brands that have long leveraged Facebook as a primary source of awareness and direct access to consumers. Birchbox and LendingTree [are two] who have also both joined the movement and have committed to pulling ad dollars.”

Of course, there is often skepticism about the real motives of brands, given the advertising industry’s long history of attempting to co-opt social movements.

Miller for instance cautions that brands have to back up what they say with real action over the long haul. “Otherwise, she warns, “They need to think long and hard about hitting send on that supportive BlackLivesMatters tweet. I applaud any brand willing to take a stand…what consumers (myself included) don’t have any time or patience for is self-congratulatory announcements.”

Transactional costs

For some brands, there are real transactional costs to social activism, as well as opportunities.   Take for example Nascar’s decision to ban the confederate flag at its events, a separate issue to the advertiser boycott, though grounded in the same social debate.

“This is an example of an organization that took a stand that they knew would be unpopular with a very vocal part of their fan base, says Miller.”

However, she adds, “If we are being really honest, it has been a slowly shrinking fan base and Nascar needed to do something to revitalize an image of the sport and of their fans. Taking a stand was the right thing to do…for many reasons one of which is to broaden their fan base and appeal to new fans.”

Changing attitudes

Advertisers now expect companies like Facebook and Google to behave as mature traditional businesses with ethics, standards, metrics, and guarantees for performance and effectiveness, says Miller.

“It has been a shock to their system, to be honest…and Facebook has not always responded in the best way. When called out for shoddy reporting, (and worse) they have dragged their heels and played the ‘oh we are just so new to these old fashioned standards’ game.” 

“Facebook, and Google for that matter, have been promising change in everything from the transparency of metrics and spend to issues around negative content adjacencies and managing misinformation and disinformation flowing through their channels. But for every promise of change, we seem to get served a new Cambridge Analytica.”

International trend

Nor is this current batch of advertiser activism a uniquely American phenomenon. The same forces that turned advertisers against Facebook in North America are playing out in Australia, but more often targeting homegrown media channels such as News Corporation’s Sky News or some of the more vituperative talkback radio personalities like Alan Jones who recently retired.

According to Denise Shrivell, a long time advocate for improving media standards, “It’s important to first make the point that boycotts have been around for a long time. Of course now through social media, people are able to organise more effectively, more efficiently and in greater numbers. Boycotts are therefore having a greater impact – and are then attracting greater scrutiny.

In Australia, two social activism groups – Sleeping Giants Oz on Twitter, and Mad Fucking Witches’ on Facebook stand out. Each identifies mainstream media content which it regards as damaging to the issues they advocate for and against such as women’s equality, domestic violence, racism, climate change denialism, says Shrivell.

“They monitor advertisers around such mainstream media content and then promote to, and mobilise, their large audiences – of Giants and Witches – by asking them to respectfully contact those advertisers, requesting that they remove their ads from that content. These groups will move to boycotts if their requests are not met. These activities can also attract media attention adding to the pressure placed on some brands.”

Drawing a comparison with the situation in the US, Shrivell says that the same reasoning that sees brands removing their advertising from Facebook should be applied to all the content and channels they support including through traditional media companies. “In some countries, there will be a larger need to remove advertising from traditional media than in others. Sadly in Australia, there’s a larger need.”

Another risk for Facebook

Advertisers we spoke to over the weekend flagged another risk for Facebook beyond just the lost revenue from a month-long advertising boycott. What happens on August the first if brands determine that abandoning the social network did not really hurt their marketing KPIs?

Something similar has happened before, but in the wider world of digital display advertising, as Which-50 reported in a September 2017 cover story called Brands Can Slash Their Digital Ad Spend With Impunity: Report 

That report, which drew on the work of Gotham City Research revealed that Proctor and Gamble, the world’s biggest advertiser was able to slash its digital display advertising spending by 41 percent, while actually increasing its sales by two per cent. It was not a great advertisement for the programmatic world. 

With COVID forcing advertisers to take a long hard look at every dollar they spend, the boycott will give marketers the opportunity to assess, at least to some extent, the efficacy of social media advertising.

“If there is no real hit to any key business KPI from the removal of advertising dollars on Facebook, marketers are going to turn the spout off for much longer until budgets bounce back post-pandemic,” according to Constellation’s Liz Miller.

Measuring the impact

We asked a number of data science and data analytics professionals what we might learn from this unexpected opportunity to examine Facebook’s effectiveness.

But it is not a straightforward proposition.

Data scientist Stuart Dennon, the founder of Whisky Traibe which monitors the pricing of Whisky Products in Australia, to provide consumers with the advantages of statistical analysis via a proprietary AI chatbot even if you could source all the data from the 160+ advertisers the results would likely be inconclusive.

“Perhaps, your best chance of detecting any statistically significant decline in sales that is directly attributable to pulling advertising from Facebook is [from] companies such as The North Face but even then I doubt you will find a measurable decline that reaches significance and hence is real.”

He also notes that Unilever, Coca Cola, Verizon, and Honda America have annual advertising budgets that measure in the billions, “.. yet their reported Facebook spend is only in the millions .. a mere drop in the ocean.”

 And he said, “This ad spend is likely brand and not tactical, hence at best indirectly connected with sales.”

So who’s out for now?

Friday saw a clutch of significant advertisers in addition to Coke announce bans. 

For Unilever, which also included Twitter in the ban, the boycott affects only the US, but will stay in place until the end of the year. In a statement, it warned of divisiveness and hate speech during this polarized election period in the U.S. and said, “Continuing to advertise on these platforms at this time would not add value to people and society.”

According to the statement, “Given our Responsibility Framework and the polarized atmosphere in the U.S., we have decided that starting now through at least the end of the year, we will not run brand advertising in social media newsfeed platforms Facebook, Instagram and Twitter in the U.S. Continuing to advertise on these platforms at this time would not add value to people and society. We will be monitoring ongoing and will revisit our current position if necessary.”

Meanwhile, in a response to CNN, a Hershey spokesperson said, “We do not believe that Facebook is effectively managing violent and divisive speech on their platform. Despite repeated assertions by Facebook to take action, we have not seen meaningful change.”

The spokesperson added, “As a company, we stand for the values of togetherness and inclusion and we are resolute in our commitment to make a difference and be part of positive change.” The Hershey’s ban is in place for July.

Iconic fashion brand Levi Strauss also joined the boycott late on the day. In a post, its CMO Jen Sey wrote, “As a company driven by our values, we at Levi Strauss & Co. have a responsibility to speak up and take action when we see major issues arise that impact our employees, fans, and the community at large.”

Jen Sey, CMO, Levi Strauss

Sey said that is was in this spirit that the company was voicing its concern about Facebook’s failure to stop the spread of misinformation and hate speech on its platform.

“We believe this inaction fuels racism and violence and also has the potential to threaten our democracy and the integrity of our elections.”

And she dismissed Facebook’s mitigation announced today as “simply not enough.”

However, some industry observers such as Dr Augustine Fou, a high profile ad fraud researcher remained skeptical of the stance of some brands.

On Linkedin, he wrote, “I caution folks about giving brands credit too early for jumping on the #StopHateForProfit bandwagon. How much was their actual [spending] on Facebook? What exactly are they “turning off?” and how long? Did they also turn off programmatic media spend that was funding hate/disinformation?”

Image credit: Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

Note: This story originally appeared as a shorter news piece on Saturday entitled,  Unilever, Coke, and Hershey abandon Facebook advertising as the dam breaks 

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