Just over a week has passed since news broke of a large-scale advertising boycott of Facebook and some other social media platforms. Brands such as Unilever, Coca-Cola, Patagonia, Honda and Levi Strauss announced 'pauses' in advertising on the platform, citing fears around current inflamed social tensions, the fact that it's an election year in the US, and the unchecked hate speech and misinformation that has a tendency to make its way onto people's feeds as reasoning. The movement is largely US based at the moment but pressure is mounting from EU initiatives, such as British nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate, for brands across the pond to follow suit. What's more, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has come under fire for dismissing the boycott issue, claiming that the brands stepping away will be back "soon enough".
There are points to be pondered. Why did brands take action now considering Facebook's questionable past with regards to fake news and events like the Cambridge Analytica scandal? Will the saved ad spend be invested into other media or is it an opportunity for brands to save a few bucks? And what does it mean for the role of the social agency?
LBB's Addison Capper picked the brains of agency representatives in the UK and US to try to make some sense of it.
Senior strategist, iris Worldwide
Facebook has created a seismic shift.
The shift from facilitating social networking to creating a social consciousness.
Cambridge Analytica taught us that our social feeds are simply our own echo-chambers where lightly held beliefs can be turned into extremist views. We no longer talk and encourage other points of view, but feed ourselves the same consciousness and collective opinion, including hateful and discriminatory content. The manipulation of our data means that online, we no longer control what we see, think, feel or (in extreme cases) do... our feeds control us.
Throw COVID, BLM and more into the mix and you have a series of people questioning the truth: what is it that has (until now) been hidden from view? Or perhaps more importantly, what agenda – hateful or otherwise - has been pushed over more varied and less discriminatory dialogue?
Starbucks, adidas and more are at the forefront of the boycott and it is businesses like these that will debilitate the platform's use of data. And even away from Facebook, brands still have the power to diversify our feeds, allowing us to move away from damaging finite opinions and hateful content towards a more balanced and safer environment.
Sharing the lesser heard, seen and collective truths online - not just the seemingly prioritised hateful agenda - is when the real change can really take place.
Director of social, search & performance media, In the Company of Huskies
First of all the thing that's driving this is a necessary cultural shift in response to the tragic death of George Floyd and other countless black individuals as a consequence of generational systemic racism. George Floyd's death was the straw that broke the camel's back for a generation that has witnessed increasing and unfettered racial abuse.
In a consumer-driven world, brands are wise to cultural sentiment and to where the tide is flowing, many of the brands that have signed up to the Facebook boycott and Stop Hate For Profit campaign understand the values of their core consumers, more socially conscious millennials and gen Z'rs. Nike’s Colin Kaepernick campaign leads the pack in what one could call brand-based social messaging but, let's face it, it was a calculated move because they knew that people of colour have a higher representation in Nike's customer base than the population at large. It made long-term business sense.
Whatever the motives of the 400 odd companies that have decided to boycott Facebook, I believe that pressure on Facebook is required. As one of the advertising behemoths, it has a responsibility to manage its platform.
However, at the end of the day, the companies that have signed up can afford it. Unilever alone spends roughly $11 million on Facebook a year and earns $16 billion a quarter so it's a drop in the ocean for them and others. For smaller businesses, they simply can't afford to do this as Facebook is the ultimate advertising platform.
Will it impact Facebook long term? Hopefully but I'm doubtful as so many brands and SMEs are dependent on it.
Strategy partner, Harbour London
It seems to be gathering momentum but 2020 news cycles tend to be rather ephemeral. Time will tell whether this is a bloody nose for Facebook or a full-blown kicking. Zuck said “all of these advertisers will be back on the platform soon enough”, and I have a suspicion he may be right. Ultimately I suspect this will come down to pounds and pence vs. principle. It reminds me a little bit of the 2018 Daily Mail/Stop Funding Hate campaigns. Lots of high-profile advertisers publicly removed spend yet it didn’t cause any lasting damage.
DMTG reported a 25% year-on-year increase in ad revenues by mid-2019, mostly driven by online. I think that the lasting nature of decisions by brands or agencies tend to end up being commercially driven.
We’ve already seen Facebook’s agency, Wieden+Kennedy, say it would be “unprofessional” to get involved. I think that means that they hope it will all blow over rather than lose the fee in these challenging times. My instinct says that Facebook will make a few token gestures to change & then everything will go back to the way it was before. After all, a platform with 44 million UK users will be hard for advertisers to shun for long.
Managing director, media services, The Many
On why brands are taking action now...
It's a combination of factors: the isolation and frustration of people related to the pandemic, mass unemployment, the increased time with screens and news as a result of quarantine, divisiveness of our political system. Take all of that and then throw in an indisputable video example of police brutality. It created a unifying sentiment of ‘this is wrong’. The anger is not new. What is new is the mainstream recognition of systemic racism and the organization to turn it into action. The actions are focused on the root causes of what is perpetuating the systemic racism and that includes social platforms. So here we are.
On the predicted timeframe of the boycott…
The boycott is the beginning of a bigger action, which is likely some form of regulation. Right now, we are still asking Facebook to regulate itself and they are much too big to be trusted to do that themselves. Not necessarily because they have ill intentions, just because they can't be objective. Whatever happens with the boycott, people and organisations are both coming forward and using some of the same language: it's not currently safe for us here.
Where the brands’ saved ad spend will go...
I believe that even if their hearts are in the right place, many large brands are using this as an opportunity to save costs and leverage the moment for PR purposes. But for brands that are looking to shift into other channels, Facebook is so ingrained in many companies' communication plans that quickly replacing it from a reach and performance perspective is not easy.
The role of the social agency...
Generally one of the most important principles we hold for our clients, particularly when it comes to media is neutrality. This doesn't mean we are neutral on hate speech, voter suppression or violent rhetoric. As an agency we have a strong perspective on this. However, when it comes to making a business recommendation for our clients, we must take into account their needs as a business, their priorities as an organization and their approach to corporate communications. Any one of those factors affects a company's response.
How Facebook should respond…
We are in uncharted territory on this one. The power and force of social technology has literally changed the entire world and we're still learning the consequences. This issue involves freedom of speech, privacy, antitrust among other things. I believe that complexity is too big for them to handle on their own and government regulation is required.
Junior strategist, Waste
Facebook has been in hot water a few times in the past, but their sheer scale and reach has always seen them bounce back, usually after some public mea culpa and platform tweaks.
This time though the noise feels bigger, and increasingly global, particularly now that we’ve seen leaked chat from Mark Zuckerburg dismissing the boycott with an assured swagger that advertisers will come back sooner or later. But will they? Should they?
For me, it’s useful to take a step back and remember the world Facebook operates in, one where the line between platform and publisher is increasingly blurred.
Social media platforms launched as a premise to connect people and keep in touch, a place to talk and share whatever you wanted. Platforms were unfiltered, user-generated content, allowing people to enjoy freedom of speech.
Fast-forward to the present, algorithms present a curated feed, community guidelines are in place, and accounts are being suspended. Ultimately, content is moderated. In fact, we've recently seen Reddit ban The Donald forum, Twitch ban a Trump-affiliated campaign account and Twitter blocking Trump's tweets. The landscape has changed significantly and social media platforms have arguably become (un-regulated) publishers.
Meanwhile, Facebook's stance seems to lie in what social media platforms used to be - a place for freedom of speech to persist. But there’s a hypocrisy at play. In the Cambridge Analytica scandal, data was taken right under our noses and used to manipulate election campaigns. Restrictions for live videos were a delayed response to a terrorist attack, and that was only implemented after pressure from the New Zealand government. Even in regards to fake news, Facebook was just a little too late. The platform is reactive, not proactive.
The question is, can advertisers genuinely stay away beyond the relatively short term hit of a month or two (in a period when ad spend is down anyway)? Will they maintain the boycott after the positive PR headlines including their brand die down? I’m not so sure.
Facebook is still vast, and we know their ads are one of the best ways to target and re-target consumers. The only way for the platform to genuinely change is if viable alternatives emerge, not just for the big brands who can afford to stay away, but for the millions of small businesses who rely on Facebook ads to fuel their income.
It’s time we reviewed paid media strategies for platforms that deliver equal CPM and CTR, and model long-term alternatives. We should also look at the wider marketing mix. Perhaps there are Facebook Ad shaped holes that other disciplines can fill, from SEO and eCRM to community marketing. After all, what social media still does best is to connect people.