Advertisers struggle for power over Facebook as boycotts surge

Advertisers struggle for power over Facebook as boycotts surgeJune 27, 2020

Corporate advertisers are pulling their marketing dollars from Facebook and challenging the idea that they need the world’s largest social network more than it needs them.

A growing number of big-name companies are signing onto an ad boycott that started days ago as a brushfire among a handful of socially conscious brands. Unilever, Coca-Cola and Honda were among those who joined the effort on Friday, citing concerns about their brands propping up divisive and hate-filled speech on social media.

Facebook’s share price dropped 8 percent after Unilever announced its boycott, which it said will last the rest of the year. Others, ranging from Verizon to Ben & Jerry’s and Eddie Bauer, are pausing ads for July. The wave of announcements runs up against what has been powerful conventional wisdom in the world of online advertising — that Facebook, with 2.6 billion members worldwide and unmatched insights into all their likes, dislikes, friendships and activities, is an essential platform for anyone who has a message to get out.

It’s the same understanding that has made Facebook central to political campaigns. President Donald Trump and his presumptive Democratic challenger Joe Biden have spent more than $65 million combined on Facebook ads in the past two years, despite offering fierce criticisms of the company.

Now some corporate advertisers are pledging to give up Facebook’s captive audience — at least for a few weeks or months — as they face their own pressures to respond to the heightened attention to racial injustice and election misinformation across the U.S.

Still, the corporate brands that have announced Facebook boycotts are a sliver of Facebook’s $70 billion in annual advertising revenue, meaning even the biggest advertisers will have trouble setting the terms. And Facebook’s massive bottom line gives it ample cushion to sustain a financial hit.

“I haven’t seen a single example of an advertiser boycott having a material impact on the internet,” said Mark Mahaney, who tracks Facebook and other internet companies at RBC Capital Markets. Perhaps a boycott could with enough support, Mahaney said, but he called that unlikely, even with Verizon and Unilever joining the campaign. “My gut sense is that Facebook’s policy of having as little content moderation as possible, that policy isn’t controversial enough to cause a widespread advertiser boycott.”

Matt Rivitz, whose advocacy group, Sleeping Giants, helped organize the Stop Hate for Profit boycott alongside Color of Change, NAACP and others, acknowledged that advertisers are in a tough spot.

“There’s a dearth of options for advertising now,” he said.”There’s just a few monopolies and it’s really hard to get around them.”

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced certain changes to how the company will label posts that violate its policies Friday. “Facebook stands for giving people a voice, and that especially means people who have previously not had as much voice or as much power to share their own experiences,” he said.

But those were in the works before the boycott and did little to assuage organizers.

“What we’ve seen in today’s address from Mark Zuckerberg is a failure to wrestle with the harms [Facebook] has caused on our democracy & civil rights,” Rashad Robinson, the president of Color of Change, tweeted. “If this is the response he’s giving to major advertisers withdrawing millions of dollars from the company, we can’t trust his leadership.”

“Our fight for justice at Facebook is far from over,” said Jessica González, co-CEO at Free Press.

Trump and Biden aren’t letting up on Facebook, either, despite having little luck getting the company to change its policies. Trump continues to hammer Facebook and other social media sites for alleged bias against him, and just last month shot off an executive order to rein them in. Biden, meanwhile, has been pushing a petition calling for Facebook to fact-check political ads — something the company has so far declined to do.

Even if Facebook can handle the boycott’s financial risk and political heat, its reputation among advertisers and users is on the line. The changes Zuckerberg revealed Friday are part of an ongoing effort to curtail divisive speech and stop voter suppression that critics say has not gone far enough. The company has said it removes nearly 90 percent of hate speech before users flag it.

Some organizers took Zuckerberg’s announcement, albeit modest, as a sign of their collective power. “Weird what happens when brands start demanding greater accountability,” tweeted Sleeping Giants in response to the news.

“There is a pressure point here,” said Hany Farid, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley who has testified before Congress on misinformation. “That can’t last forever, but look, if they can withhold 10 or 20 percent of revenue for a couple of months, I think it would get somebody’s attention.”

Some of the funds companies are withholding are sizable, if not bank breaking for Facebook. Unilever spent $42.3 million on Facebook ads in the U.S. in 2019 and Coca-Cola spent $22.1 million, according to digital marketing researcher Pathmatics.

And the company has spent recent days reaching out to advertisers to allay their anger. Neil Potts, Facebook’s head of trust and safety policy, acknowledged to advertisers this week that the company has a “trust deficit,” according to the Financial Times. The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that Zuckerberg and Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg have been reaching out directly to companies.

But Facebook also maintains it will not be bowed by pressure from clients. “We do not make policy changes tied to revenue pressure,” Carolyn Everson, the vice president of Facebook’s Global Business Group, told advertisers last weekend in an email, according to the Journal report. “We set our policies based on principles rather than business interests.”

Everson said in a statement “we deeply respect any brand’s decision” and will continue to remove hate speech and election misinformation.

The presidential campaigns also find themselves grasping for leverage. Despite their criticisms, both continue to ply Facebook with money. Trump has spent $45 million and Biden $23.4 million on just their individual campaign accounts since May 2018, according to Facebook’s ad library. Those figures are only going to climb as the November election nears.

Just last week, the Biden campaign found itself buying ads on Facebook that criticize Facebook.

The Trump campaign, meanwhile, is pushing supporters to its official app and rival social media platforms, particularly an upstart called Parler that has few moderation policies. But it has given no indications that it is pulling back on ads on more mainstream social media.

Political advertising is a growing slice of Facebook’s revenue as more campaign ads shift online, but campaigns also have limited bargaining power. Politicians have few other options to reach Facebook’s critical audience, particularly with alternatives like Google and Twitter imposing some restrictions on political advertisers or banishing them altogether.

Neither campaign commented for this story, but their behavior reflects the fact there are few places where advertisers can reach so many Americans, let alone target them granularly based on their location, demographics and interests. Facebook has about 175 million users in the U.S., according to research firm eMarketer. That appeal is hard to resist whether you’re selling coats or soliciting votes.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) proclaimed this week that he has joined Parler, though he has no plans to quit Facebook, Twitter or other large-scale platforms, a spokesperson noted.

Meanwhile, Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said advertisers “have power to discourage platforms from amplifying dangerous and even life-threatening disinformation” at an event last week. She has spent more than $2 million advertising on the platform since May 2018, records show.

The greatest power to influence Facebook policies still appears to lie in global capitals, including Washington, where regulators and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle now question the business models that have allowed internet companies to grow so large with relatively few checks.

Facebook’s dominance in the social media market has attracted investigations from state and federal antitrust authorities, some of whom suggest too much control over online speech is a symptom of poor market competition. And an increasing number of lawmakers are proposing legislation to change how social media companies govern online speech.

“There’s pressure and public advocacy that’s happening here, which is important, but it’s not going to solve the underlying problem. That’s going to be solved by regulators,” said Jason Kint, CEO of Digital Content Next, a digital media trade group whose members include Disney, Condé Nast and The New York Times.

Kint has been a fierce critic of the market power Facebook and Google have amassed, and he said advertisers’ grievances offer proof to antitrust authorities that their size poses real harm. Kint is not directly involved with the boycott but has been an ardent supporter online, tagging companies like Coca-Cola, Nike and Under Armour on Twitter to urge them to participate.

Trump has tried to wield the power of the executive branch against the social media companies, signing an executive order last month designed to punish social media giants for allegedly silencing conservatives, though it has already been challenged in court.

As part of the order, Trump began a push to restrict federal agencies from advertising on social media sites deemed politically biased. But he has pushed back at liberals trying the same pressure tactic, and with many more dollars at stake. He recently told The Daily Caller he doesn’t support the industry boycott.

“That has to be illegal in some form,” the president said. “How can you possibly allow this to happen? This is really a takeover of the whole system.”

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