Prin­ci­pled stand against Face­book looks more like a handy ex­cuse

As boy­cott snow­balls, firms’ mo­tives are com­ing un­der ques­tion, write Michael Cog­ley and Han­nah Boland

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Technology Intelligen­ce -

As Face­book’s ad­ver­tis­ing boy­cott grows, so too has scep­ti­cism over the mo­tives of some of the busi­nesses in­volved. From Unilever to Patag­o­nia, some of the world’s big­gest com­pa­nies have joined the cam­paign in protest over Face­book’s han­dling of hate speech and mis­in­for­ma­tion. They all claim to be with­hold­ing their ad dol­lars to achieve the lofty goal of hold­ing so­cial me­dia com­pa­nies to ac­count. They say they want to drive change, and hit­ting Face­book’s bot­tom line is the best way to spur a change in the way net­works are mod­er­ated.

They may in­deed have the best of in­ten­tions, but per­haps shrink­ing the ad­ver­tis­ing bud­get ahead of a loom­ing re­ces­sion has a role to play too.

“Ad­ver­tis­ing bud­gets are be­ing cut back fairly sig­nif­i­cantly,” says Tier­nan Kenny, Ac­cess Part­ner­ship UK pol­icy man­ager. “If you look at the types of com­pa­nies that are in­volved in the boy­cott, they tend to be con­sumer or lux­ury con­sumer brands. I think all of those brands are go­ing to be at least look­ing very care­fully at where they spend their money and prob­a­bly are look­ing to make sig­nif­i­cant cut­backs.”

Kenny is one of a num­ber of doubters of the in­ten­tions of some of the com­pa­nies that have signed up to the Stop Hate for Profit cam­paign.

Ad­ver­tis­ing has been hit heav­ily by the pan­demic with fig­ures from the In­ter­ac­tive Ad­ver­tis­ing Bureau point­ing to a 16pc de­cline in “cost per thou­sand im­pres­sions”, a bell­wether for the health of the ad in­dus­try.

The pub­lic pol­icy man­ager says that in a way the boy­cott acts as a “handy ex­cuse” for some com­pa­nies plan­ning to re­duce ad­ver­tis­ing spend on what have ar­guably be­come toxic plat­forms.

“The very clear un­der­ly­ing mo­tive is fi­nan­cial,” he says. “You have to go com­pany by com­pany. If you look at brands tar­get­ing cer­tain de­mo­graph­ics, like younger peo­ple for ex­am­ple, their cus­tomers would ex­pect brands to stand for some­thing be­yond qual­ity or value.”

Pub­lic­ity around the ad­ver­tis­ing boy­cott has snow­balled in re­cent days. A coali­tion in­clud­ing the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion for the Ad­vance­ment of Colored Peo­ple has been urg­ing com­pa­nies to stop ad­ver­tis­ing on

Face­book for not do­ing enough to stop hate speech, us­ing the #StopHateFo­rProfit hash­tag.

The boy­cott gained mo­men­tum amid the lat­est civil un­rest af­ter ac­tivists pressed Face­book to be more ag­gres­sive in curb­ing racism and in­flam­ma­tory con­tent, in­clud­ing from Don­ald Trump, the pres­i­dent.

This week, it started to spread to Europe. On Tues­day, Puma joined a long list of more than 200 com­pa­nies that have pulled ad­ver­tis­ing. Honda said it would be stop­ping ad­ver­tis­ing through Face­book and In­sta­gram in the bloc through July “in align­ment with our com­pany’s val­ues, which are grounded in hu­man re­spect”.

Al­ready, the cam­paign is ex­pected to cost the so­cial me­dia firm hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars.

Yet, among brands, there have been ques­tions over what they’re truly sup­port­ing. “If I gave a sur­vey to those peo­ple in my busi­ness, I’m not sure half of them would ex­actly know why they’d boy­cott ad­ver­tis­ing on the site,” says an ex­ec­u­tive at one busi­ness which uses Face­book to ad­ver­tise.

“It feels mud­dled to me... I think it’s partly just an op­por­tune mo­ment for brands to get Face­book to sort its act out more broadly,” says the ex­ec­u­tive.

In the past, wide­spread boy­cotts to bring in pro­tec­tions for ad­ver­tis­ers have paid off. In 2017, ma­jor brands pulled spend from YouTube af­ter their ads ap­peared next to ter­ror­ist, hate speech and mis­in­for­ma­tion videos. Ul­ti­mately, this re­sulted in YouTube cut­ting ad­ver­tis­ing from thou­sands of chan­nels to “pre­vent po­ten­tially in­ap­pro­pri­ate videos from mon­etis­ing”.

This time, though, it’s a lit­tle dif­fer­ent. “It’s big­ger be­cause of what’s hap­pened with the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment and the swing in pub­lic opin­ion,” says Sir Mar­tin Sor­rell, the S4 Cap­i­tal boss. “Ad­ver­tis­ers are re­flect­ing this gen­uine shift.”

Still, how long this will con­tinue re­mains to be seen. S4 Cap­i­tal ex­pects the dig­i­tal ad­ver­tis­ing mar­ket will re­main worth around $250bn (£200bn) world­wide, out of the to­tal ad mar­ket of $500bn this year. This to­tal mar­ket will be down on last year, but “dig­i­tal will stay the same so its mar­ket share will go up,” Sir Mar­tin says.

The pledges by some brands are, notably, lim­ited. Ford and Honda, for in­stance, are only paus­ing ad­ver­tis­ing for a month. Oth­ers, such as Unilever, have com­mit­ted to only pulling US ads.

Larry Chi­agouris, a Pace Uni­ver­sity mar­ket­ing pro­fes­sor, claims Face­book is likely to re­main at­trac­tive for ad­ver­tis­ers. The boy­cott “may lead to a soft­en­ing of Face­book rev­enues a bit, but it will bounce back,” he says. “Rightly or wrongly, peo­ple are still in love with their Face­book ac­counts.”

Face­book‘s Mark Zucker­berg faces sig­nif­i­cant losses in ad­ver­tis­ing rev­enue

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