Inside the Longshot Campaign to Get Advertisers to Ditch Facebook

Boycotts are nothing new, but these groups are betting the moment is ripe for change

Mark Zuckerberg has taken heat for not moderating Donald Trump's posts and his policy against fact-checking political ads. - Credit by Getty Images
Headshot of Scott Nover

Key insights:

During the early hours of May 29, protesters flooded the streets of Minneapolis, demanding justice following the police killing of George Floyd, a Black man, in their city. 

President Donald Trump—who often posts on social media at odd hours of the night—tweeted at 12:53 a.m. that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Minutes afterward, the same message was on his Facebook account and, later, on the platform’s sister site, Instagram.

Twitter restricted the post, saying it violated the website’s rules against glorifying violence, but Facebook left it alone. CEO Mark Zuckerberg has vehemently defended his actions in the days since, arguing that the president’s words were not clearly inciting violence, which would have violated Facebook rules. 

"Working at Facebook is rapidly becoming the equivalent of working at Philip Morris."
James, co-founder, Detox Facebook

Trump’s social media posts have often pushed the boundaries of acceptable speech online. But this one—a message that seemed to threaten violence against a group of protesters, many of whom were Black—was deemed brazen enough for Twitter to take action. Now some liberal advocacy groups are hoping this moment is enough for advertisers to reexamine their own spending with Facebook, a platform that has traditionally attracted billions of dollars for its ability to closely target and deliver results at low costs.

Facebook said it’s talking with advertisers and partners, a few of whom have expressed concern over Zuckerberg’s decision, but hasn’t seen much change. How the company handles political speech and, by extension, political advertising has been the subject of much criticism over the years, and tensions are running high ahead of the upcoming election.

Zuckerberg’s laissez-faire approach regarding the Trump tweet has already been highly scrutinized, including from within his own company. Employees posted public statements, participated in a virtual walkout and at least one resigned last week. Additionally, Public Knowledge and New America’s Open Technology Institute, two center-left think tanks, announced they will no longer take funding from Facebook. Former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee for president, is even calling for Facebook to clean up misinformation on its platform and enforce its rules equally for all users.

But as pressure mounts from within the company and from Washington, could Madison Avenue be next? While media buyers and experts told Adweek it’s unlikely we’ll see a sizable ad boycott—let alone one that rattles Facebook—pressure campaigns could be effective at getting advertisers to think twice about spending on the platform.

The message to Facebook’s advertisers

The shadowy group Detox Facebook emerged just last week, but is already gaining traction online. The anonymously run group, a coalition of current and former advertising and tech workers, hopes to pressure advertisers to reallocate ad budgets away from Facebook and Instagram until the company “ends hate speech and lying in political advertising.”

The platform’s share of digital advertising is large: Facebook made nearly $71 billion on advertising revenue in 2019. In contrast, Twitter brought in $3 billion. eMarketer reported that Facebook and Google will control a combined share of 58.4% of the U.S. digital advertising market this year.

More than a dozen co-founders created the group anonymously to protect their livelihoods, many of which depend on digital advertising, a sector where Facebook is dominant. Three of those co-founders agreed to speak with Adweek on condition of anonymity, under the pseudonyms Mike, James, and Matty, who said it’s time for change at the social media giant.

“We felt that for brands that really care about taking a stand for an issue like Black Lives Matter, we found it a bit hypocritical to be standing with Black lives, using this cause to take a stance publicly, yet also pouring lots of money into advertising on Facebook, which is in a lot of ways complicit,” said Mike, a former Silicon Valley data scientist.

James, a freelance creative director who has previously worked at major ad agencies, said the boycott campaign has been a long time coming and extends beyond Trump’s tweet to how Facebook, as a whole, treats political advertising. The group is advocating for Zuckerberg to step aside and create additional oversight.

Liberal advocacy groups have long tried to pry ad dollars away from Facebook due to concerns over the platform’s political advertising rules.

“I kind of feel sorry for Facebook employees,” said James, part of the Detox Facebook campaign. “I mean, Facebook used to be cool, right? Let’s make Facebook cool again. Working at Facebook is rapidly becoming the equivalent of working at Philip Morris.”

Why 8 million businesses rely on Facebook

While Twitter banned all political advertising from its platform in the fall, Facebook has taken no such step. It has also resisted calls to fact-check political ads, instead calling for government regulation to dictate what it should do.

“We have based [our policy] on the principle that people should be able to hear from those who wish to lead them, warts and all, and that what they say should be scrutinized and debated in public,” Rob Leathern, Facebook’s director of product management for ads, wrote in a January blog post

Facebook said in October that it expects ads from politicians to make up 0.5% of revenue in 2020. (That would be $355 million for such ads if Facebook brings in the $71 billion in total revenue it had in 2019.) 

But an ad boycott is a tough proposition for any of the 8 million businesses that advertise on Facebook, as the platform is seen as a necessary tool for any digital marketing operation. 

In many ways, Facebook is a media buyer’s dream, said Matty, also a member of Detox and a former media planner who now runs his own strategy and research company. “You’ve got an audience, you know what the audience is like, and you know where they are, and you know what sort of messages are going to resonate with them. You take Facebook out of your portfolio of platforms you can advertise on, people will hurt. They will miss it,” he said.

Sleeping Giants and Media Matters for America, two liberal advocacy groups that have led ad boycotts of conservative news outlets including Fox News and Breitbart, have also turned their attention toward Facebook. 

“I would just ask [advertisers] what kind of world they want to do business in,” Matt Rivitz, co-founder of Sleeping Giants, said in an interview with Adweek. “Marketers depend on people being able to divine what is true and what is not. If we’re doing business in a world where truth means nothing anymore, no one is going to believe them either.”

Media Matters president Angelo Carusone wants Facebook to stop allowing misleading political ads on its platform and is writing a letter to advertisers ahead of the social network’s presentation at the IAB’s 2020 NewFronts on June 23, where the company will try to secure long-term ad commitments from big brands.

While Facebook said it has banned “paid advertising that suggests voting is useless or meaningless, or advises people not to vote”—a policy to prevent voter suppression—Media Matters recently found 529 ads running on Facebook that it said make false claims about voter fraud. A Facebook spokesperson told Adweek that the ads highlighted by Media Matters do not violate the company’s current policy on election interference and voter suppression.

“These are brands that have identities and, in society, there are expectations for them to sometimes take a stand,” Carusone said, adding that it’s “impossible to ignore” Facebook’s decisions right now.

Is anyone reconsidering?

It’s unclear how influential these boycott efforts will be. A few small advertisers this week have already taken a stand against Facebook’s recent actions. Braze, a cloud-based software company, is perhaps the largest of those moving their ad dollars away from Facebook and Instagram.

“[Facebook’s] leadership has chosen to look the other way, supposedly in the name of free speech, as highly visible and incendiary statements are amplified on their platform,” Sara Spivey, CMO of Braze, wrote in an Adweek opinion piece earlier this week. “As a CMO, I can speak with my marketing budget.” She declined to be interviewed for this article.

Braze was not dependent on Facebook, having deactivated its account last year. However, Spivey said she had planned an upcoming ad campaign on the platform, which she is now nixing. “I recognize that my decision was low risk, since in the b-to-b SaaS world we can take or leave Facebook without much impact on our business.”

Simris, a small Swedish company that produces omega-3 supplements from farmed algae, also recently pulled its Facebook advertising. It was a big sacrifice, especially since the company had just recently increased its Facebook ad budget for promotions while Covid-19 affected in-person advertising, according to Fredrika Gullfot, founder and CEO of Simris. The company won’t reverse course “as long as Facebook is one of the major enablers of racist and unjust structures,” she said.

Gullfot said brands might need to rethink their reliance on social media. “Is it really our business to snoop into people’s lives, even if by algorithms, to shovel our products into their feed?” she said, adding, “We have clearly been enablers of a broken and dangerous system, throughout the past years.”

Braze and Simris each said their decisions were made independently of boycott campaigns.

A bigger brand, Talkspace, an online therapy company, announced it is backing out of a six-figure content partnership with Facebook over the company’s decision on the Trump post. 

“Facebook is a virtual monopoly in online advertising,” Oren Frank, co-founder and CEO of Talkspace, said in a statement. “We believe that because Facebook knows this, it allows itself to behave the way it does with regards to moderating hateful and violence-inciting content on its platform.”

Talkspace isn’t cutting its ad budget on Facebook because it says its product brings much-needed support to people in need during a time of worldwide crisis, but withdrawing from the content partnership—which would have given free therapy to certain users—was a way to send a message to Facebook.

A number of other small companies have come forward to say they’re withdrawing or reconsidering their ad spend on Facebook, including payment platform Fons, and marketing agencies Digital Natives and UpDate Digital, each of whom shared their intentions in response to Spivey’s op-ed on Twitter.

How Facebook explains itself

Out of 8 million advertisers, “very, very few” are approaching Facebook to talk about the company’s stance on Trump’s post, said Carolyn Everson, vp of global marketing solutions, who is often tasked with explaining company policies to advertisers and brand partners. 

"[T]his is a moment in history that just cannot be about one single post. That would diminish what’s really happening in society."
Carolyn Everson, vp of global marketing solutions, Facebook

@ScottNover Scott Nover is a platforms reporter at Adweek, covering social media companies and their influence.
Publish date: June 12, 2020 © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT