The cynic’s case for why brands need to double down on the Facebook ad boycott

By Jeff Beer

Over the past couple of weeks, a parade of major brands and advertisers have been pulling their ads from Facebook for at least the month of July, officially joining or unofficially siding with a boycott started by a coalition of civil rights leaders called Stop Hate for Profit. This has attracted blanket press coverage, but we hadn’t really heard from the social network itself.

This week, the company finally offered a real response.

Or at least it thought it did.

On Tuesday, chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg released a statement on the matter. In a long Facebook post, Sandberg said, “We are making changes—not for financial reasons or advertiser pressure, but because it is the right thing to do.” She continued: “We have made real progress over the years, but this work is never finished and we know what a big responsibility Facebook has to get better at finding and removing hateful content.”

She touted an ongoing, two-year independent civil rights audit of Facebook as an example of that progress, which just happened to be reporting its findings the very next day, on July 8.

She also announced that she, Mark Zuckerberg, and other Facebook execs were about to sit down—that very morning!—with the civil rights leaders of the Stop Hate for Profit campaign leading the ad boycott.

The meeting could have been a gleaming bauble of a public relations opportunity if Facebook had come prepared to address the demands these leaders had made, delivering meaningful responses on real issues. If Facebook reacted to the civil rights audit with contrition and action, maybe that new, more humble public stance would have neutralized some of the sting to its public image wrought by the high-profile boycott.

But it didn’t.

After their meeting, Stop Hate for Profit organizers, as well as Vanita Gupta from the Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights and Sherrilyn Ifill from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, came away unimpressed. “The company’s recent announcements have been incremental,” they wrote in a joint statement, “rather than the kind of bold action needed to seriously address the harmful impact of voter disinformation and hate speech on the platform.”

In a call with media after the meeting, Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said it was “long on time but short on commitments . . . . What we heard them say is that they are on a journey and they think they are doing better. There is no journey, if you will, on fighting hate.”

So Sandberg’s message, in hindsight, would appear to have been a bit of trying to get in front of bad news instead of engaging with it seriously.

Stop Hate For Profit’s leaders, which includes the NAACP, Anti-Defamation League, and Color of Change, issued a statement that said, “It was abundantly clear in our meeting today that Mark Zuckerberg and the Facebook team is not yet ready to address the vitriolic hate on their platform. Zuckerberg offered the same old defense of white supremacist, antisemitic, Islamophobic, and other hateful groups on Facebook that the Stop Hate For Profit Coalitions, advertisers, and society at large have heard too many times before.”

The statement went on: “None of this is hard, especially for one of the world’s most innovative companies whose founder coined the term move fast and break things. Mark Zuckerberg, you aren’t breaking things, you are breaking people. With a stroke of a pen, you could make Facebook better for your users, your advertisers, and society. We hope that you continue thinking about the consequences of what you have wrought and come back to the table soon with real change.”

Then Wednesday morning, the results of the civil rights audit were released.

Auditors wrote that while the company has made some progress, it is “obscured by the vexing and heartbreaking decisions Facebook has made that represent significant setbacks for civil rights . . . . The prioritization of free expression over all other values, such as equality and nondiscrimination, is deeply troubling.”

The dilemma brands face now

While the civil rights rebukes appear initially to confirm or legitimize brands’ choice to pull advertising off the platform, they also introduce a potential dilemma for some of the boycotters. Some have led in their stance against the hate and disinformation allowed to spread on Facebook; others surely joined this boycott for more PR-friendly reasons. As in, they couldn’t afford not to do it, for fear of looking like supporters of hate themselves.

At the time, pulling Facebook ads in July, as they slash their ad budgets anyway, was for many a win-win of saved money and boosted image. But now? Given the response from civil rights leaders and the results of the two-year audit, how can a brand return to the platform until real, measurable change is actually made?

Consider as well that Zuckerberg’s reaction to the boycott has essentially been a shrug emoji. According to leaked details published by The Information, Zuckerberg said in a private company meeting that he expected “all these advertisers will be back on the platform soon enough,” adding, “we’re not going to change our policies or approach on anything because of a threat to a small percent of our revenue.”

So if major marketers choose to slink back now, after Facebook’s complete lack of response to civil rights leaders and calling advertisers’ bluff privately, the boycotting brands risk undermining any goodwill built from the campaign in the first place, and the additional PR challenge of looking like just another opportunistic marketer co-opting a movement, disappointing fans, customers, and employees.

Is there really a choice here?

What really could be at stake in ratcheting up the boycott

One could argue that it’s all pointless. Just as millions of small and medium businesses depend on Facebook for maximizing their advertising budgets, given its sheer scale and power in the marketplace, even Unilever, Ford, Honda, and others can’t afford to stay away forever.

However, one thing all these boycotting brands have that all those Facebook-dependent small and medium businesses don’t is scale of voice. They have PR machines of their own, they advertise on other platforms, in other media, and lobby in Washington. It’s actually the strongest leverage they have over Facebook, and now is a particularly good time to use it. Not just because it would align with a civil rights struggle at a momentous moment in history, but also because of a convenient bit of timing.

On July 27, the CEOs of Google, Apple, Amazon, and, yes, Facebook will be testifying as part of a yearlong antitrust investigation by the House Judiciary Committee. Facebook-owned sites (including Instagram) account for 75% of all time spent on social networks, and the company raked in about $67 billion in digital ad revenue last year. A report published this month by two former Department of Justice antitrust lawyers said, “Without antitrust or regulatory intervention, it is unlikely that anything is going to change. Facebook can collect monopoly rents, manage the flow of information to most of the nation, and engage in virtually unlimited surveillance into the foreseeable future.”

Facebook’s lack of response and meaningful action, as illustrated by the civil rights leaders’ exasperation with the company and Zuckerberg’s dusting the boycott off his shoulders, strengthens the very antitrust case made in that report. Boycotting brands need to get loud about their very lack of power here, despite millions spent.

If you want to get cynical about it, brands could tout the boycott and antitrust investigation as a campaign against hate and discrimination, while quietly hoping the whole thing a) opens up the social market to more competition and, thus, more competitive ad prices; b) forces Facebook to loosen its grip on all the data it hordes on its users and ad effectiveness (something marketers have long coveted); or c) all of the above.

Any major brand that backs down now is just Zucking itself.

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