Rest In Peace, Facebook Ads Boycott (2020—2020)

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Photo: John Thys (Getty Images)

This past summer, dozens of major brands pulled their ad dollars from Facebook in a protest of the company’s handling of the hate speech and disinformation. Apparently the company has done enough to win back one of its biggest fish: Unilever, which announced late last week that it would be picking up its ad campaigns where they left off six months prior. Arguably, this marks the end of the boycott that—when you look a little closer—was never really much of a boycott to begin with.

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Even if you don’t know Unilever by name, you’ve probably bought one of their products, which include everything from Lipton tea to Axe body spray to Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. Per The Wall Street Journal, the branding behemoth didn’t formally sign onto the “Stop Hate For Profit” campaign that was spearheaded by the likes of the Anti-Defamation League and NAACP (among others). Rather, Unilever independently took the stance of pausing its spend across Facebook and Instagram through the year’s end.

“As we approach the end of our planned pause period, we have been encouraged by the platforms’ new commitments and reporting to monitor progress. We therefore plan to end our pause in the US starting in January,” the company said in a statement, adding that it will continue to “closely assess” the platforms’ ongoing commitments, along with “polarization” in the post-election newsfeed environment.

Let’s talk about some of those “new commitments” for a second. Since this summer, Facebook has made a few notable crackdowns that were inarguably long overdue: CEO Mark Zuckerberg decided holocaust denial shouldn’t be permitted on the platform, a major about-face from his stance on the topic just two years ago. Facebook revealed exactly how many posts get taken down for hate speech per quarter for the first time in the company’s history. Internally, it also began piloting a program meant to cut down on the number of marginalized groups getting improperly flagged by Facebook’s hate speech-sniffing algorithms.

To some activist groups, these moves were too little too late. But for most major advertisers, it sufficed: in the aftermath of the fire and fury that accompanied the initial boycott, we’ve been seeing a steady trickle of advertisers slowly putting their dollars back into Facebook’s wallet. As Digiday rightfully pointed out at the time, many of these advertisers migrated back before these changes were even implemented, relying purely on Facebook’s word that it would get its act together.

Using the list of brand which had signed onto Stop Hate For Profit’s pledge, examined over 60 of biggest and most recognizable brands’ ad spending using the (somewhat broken) Facebook Ad Library. Of the lot, only ten—Unilever included—were still hitting pause this far down the line.

Those numbers only tell part of the story: some of the brands hadn’t bought ads on Facebook in years prior to the campaign; others never showed up as advertising on the platform to begin with. In either case, their decision to sign on was, at best, symbolic, and unlikely harm Facebook financially.

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Even during what were ostensibly pauses in spending we found many of these brands—including Unilever—were still sending their ad dollars to Facebook, just not through the usual channels. In some cases, that ad spend was routed through a lesser known cog in Facebook’s ad machine called the “Facebook Audience Network” that the company uses to serve ads on third party apps that aren’t under the Facebook umbrella. In other cases, money was still being poured into Facebook proper, but only to reach consumers outside of the United States. Even in Thursday’s announcement, Unilever clarified that it’s ending its ad-spending pause specifically in the US, since it was never global to begin with.

We reached out to Stop Hate For Profit to see if its campaign is ongoing and did not receive a reply.

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All in all, I think it’s safe to say that the brief boycott has run its course, despite Facebook not changing much at all.

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