Corporate ad boycotts have as long a tradition as corporate virtue-signaling. Don’t count on either to dent the social media titan.
Every day, it seems, another major corporation joins the advertiser boycott against Facebook. First came The North Face, REI and Patagonia. Then Verizon, Hershey and Honda America enlisted in the protest. Now, Starbucks, Levi’s and Diageo and scores of other major advertisers have joined the picket line to protest the “hate” and misinformation that appear on the social media giant’s content and ad pages.
The boycott—initiated in mid-June by #StopHateforProfit, the ad hoc pressure group formed by the Anti-Defamation League, the NAACP, Sleeping Giants, Color of Change, Free Press and Common Sense—has called on corporations to suspend their advertising on Facebook (and its Instagram subsidiary) for the month of July. The boycott’s end goal is to force company CEO Mark Zuckerberg to censor and throttle the racism, vaccine misinformation, anti-Semitism, threats of violence, and other retrograde material posted there. Even Zuckerberg’s employees have rebelled against him. In June, when Facebook ignored its own standards by allowing President Donald Trump to post a threatening message (“… when the looting starts, the shooting starts”), company workers staged a virtual Facebook walkout.
The boycott has stirred almost daily media coverage, including lead coverage in the Wednesday New York Times business section, as reporters have aggressively tracked new corporate supporters of the cause. From the outside, it looks like a very big deal, evidence of a crack in the armor of a true new-media Goliath. But poking the skin and looking beneath, the boycott poses only the slightest PR worry to Zuckerberg’s empire.
That so many major corporations heeded Stop Hate for Profit’s demand on such short notice can be read two ways. The first is that corporate America has only just now, in the early summer of 2020, discovered that Facebook teems with cruel and backward content and wants that nastiness to end. Actually, nobody believes that. There can’t be a single corporate leader who hasn’t long been aware of the nasty bilge that flows through Facebook, and kept the ad money flowing anyway.
The second—and proper—way to read the group bowing to the #StopHateforProfit activists’ campaign is that it affords CEOs a chance to claim a higher moral standing in the public’s eyes at a very, very low price. No large company is going to suffer economically by eliminating Facebook advertising 1) during a historically slow sales month, which 2) is also happening during a recession, and which 3) also coincides with the low-spending period of semi-quarantine. Asking a corporation to boycott Facebook in July 2020 is a little like asking a casual drinker to observe Lent by giving up alcohol in a dry county.
The boycott offers another plus to big companies—and in this respect is part of a long tradition in the best-of-frenemies tug-of-war between advertisers and media platforms. Advertisers generally resent the platforms that sell them ad space, whether they be print, broadcast or online, because they think of advertising as a shakedown business, like taxation or robbery. A decade ago, they were mad at the networks jacking up rates for must-see TV; a generation ago, the resentment was aimed at big daily papers, which had a monopoly grip on local media markets. Companies annoyed at coverage or rates would punch back with their own, less principled, temporary ad boycotts.
There may never have been a monopoly ad platform quite like Facebook—well, except for Google—so you can bet there’s some built-up resentment. By reducing Facebook’s $70.7 billion in annual revenues, even by a tiny bit, corporate bosses get to flip off the advertising business at relatively little cost to themselves—or, really, to Facebook. Facebook collects most of its advertising revenue from the millions of small and medium-sized companies that depend on its effective, targeted ads. Its top 100 advertisers contributed less than 20 percent of revenue in the first quarter of last year. Furthermore, Facebook stock has already rallied out of the divot dug by the boycott’s announcement. And according to analysts, the loss of annual Facebook revenue from the July boycott might be as low as 5 percent. Every Fortune 500 advertiser on Facebook could plummet into a volcanic fissure, and the company would still be minting gold.
Of course the bad publicity churned by the July boycott has blemished Facebook’s reputation—but how much? The small and medium businesses that feed Facebook with advertising aren’t about to join the boycott. They can’t afford to because Facebook makes them so much money. And neither are users. About 70 percent of American adults use Facebook. The service has become so integral to American lives that asking people to abandon it for a month would be like asking them to give up their phone or refrigerator.
Why, exactly, we should applaud the boycott moves of major corporations has yet to be explained by #StopHateforProfit or anybody else. Are they really all that morally superior to Facebook? The list of corporate boycotters can almost be read as a listing of major corporations who were previously targeted by boycotters. Coca-Cola is frequently shunned for its conduct. Nestlé, whose Blue Bottle Coffee holding, has been a boycotter favorite, as have Ford, HP, Pfizer and Chobani. And don’t get me started on Starbucks, another Facebook boycotter. Almost monthly, somebody somewhere calls for a boycott against the coffee vendor for evicting Black people from a store, for disrespecting cops, supporting gay rights, for telling baristas not to wear BLM apparel, pledging to hire refugees and serving gun-packing patrons. Throwing stones from glass houses never goes out of style.
As the proprietor of a business protected by the First Amendment and Section 230, Zuckerberg has every right to tell his critics that what appears on Facebook is free speech in action and they can stuff it if they don’t like it. But that’s not Zuck’s way. He wouldn’t embrace principle if his life depended on it. He’s much happier to co-opt his critics to make Facebook bigger and more impregnable. Last year, New York Times reporter Mike Isaac annotated a just-published Zuckerberg op-ed to show how the tycoon’s mind works. Presented with tough questions about what kind of speech on the site to suppress, how to distinguish political speech from political ads, Zuckerberg announced his willingness to delegate such problems to lawmakers and regulators. Isaac read the announcement as an attempt at plausible deniability: Once in compliance with the laws and regulations, Zuckerberg could shrug and tell critics that if they had any problem with how Facebook operated, they could take it up with the federal government. Isaac noted another advantage Zuckerberg could reap by voluntarily placing the Facebook properties—Facebook, Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp—under a greater regulatory yoke. As the dominant social media incumbent, Facebook could easily afford the costs of regulation while startups probably couldn’t, and so its dominance could continue.
Writing recently in OneZero, journalist Will Oremus made an essential point by comparing the Facebook boycott to earlier advertiser boycotts of Google’s YouTube division. In 2017 and 2019, Verizon, Walmart, Pepsi, Disney, Nestlé and others objected to the undesirable videos that ran adjacent to some of their ads. Once YouTube established more restrictive content rules to placate the advertisers, the advertisers came back, leaving the division “bigger and stronger, rather than weaker, as a business.” You can expect a rerun of the YouTube episode for Facebook. Zuckerberg will bend, apologize and make promises about better future conduct as he customarily does when facing a PR crisis. He’s already stooping to the current boycott, labeling iffy but newsworthy content that violates its standards (such as some Trump posts), deleting posts designed to suppress voter turnout, and yanking ads that make calls to violence or express overt racism (although some of his accommodations appear to have been in the works before the boycott commenced).
When Facebook emerges from today’s boycott bigger and stronger, you’ll have the right to ask if the whole thing wasn’t a Facebook conspiracy from the beginning.