Yesterday, Verizon became the latest company to join a corporate chorus boycotting Facebook advertisements in July as part of a rallying cry to get Facebook’s corporate board to take action on the rampant racism and hate speech that many of us have come to associate with the platform. The “Stop Hate for Profit” campaign, as it’s called, has gained significant steam over the past week or so, quickly racking up major brand names like Ben & Jerry’s and Patagonia among those turning their back on one of the largest advertising players in the world, if only for a month.
When you read through the website created for the campaign—which boasts partnerships from major civil rights players like Color Of Change, the NAACP, and the Anti-Defamation League—the idea seems like a slam dunk. As they point out, just about all of the money Facebook continues to rake in comes from its massive advertising empire, which means the ad dollars currently being funneled by brands are inadvertently enabling a platform that has, to date, sided with Breitbart as a trusted news source and the Daily Caller as a fact-checker while also seemingly turning a blind eye to the increasingly frequent calls to abuse and murder people of color.
It might, that is, if the brands in question were actually pressing pause on their ad budgets. Despite the accolades they’ve garnered with the press and the public, only one of the brands that have taken center stage in the current campaign confirmed to Gizmodo that they were actually pulling 100% of the bucks we all assumed that they were. Rather, it seems like many of them are leaving the door open to funnel that money into Facebook properties that are lesser-known, or based overseas.
As it turns out, the movement to “defund Facebook” can mean different things to different people. For some, it might mean pulling their ad dollars from the feeds of Facebook proper, while continuing to funnel that money into its sister company, Instagram, which pulled in a solid $20 billion in ad revenue in 2019 alone. For others, it might mean pulling their ad dollars from Facebook and Instagram, while continuing to spend big bucks on the Facebook Audience Network, which runs ads targeted toward particular Facebook users across a slew of third-party apps they might download, including Tiktok and Tinder. To at least one company Gizmodo contacted, this meant pulling out of all of these operations in the US, while continuing to funnel that money internationally.
“As this is a U.S. campaign, we’ve focused on our U.S. operations now to support it here,” a Ben & Jerry’s spokesperson told Gizmodo. “I think we’re reviewing globally and may very well take the same position across the globe.”
Today, Ben & jerry’s parent company, the multinational conglomerate Unilever also committed to pulling its ads from Facebook “through at least the end of the year,” citing the “polarized atmosphere in the U.S.,” CNBC first reported. Facebook shares tanked more than 7% after it made the announcement.
Shockingly, only one of the major names we contacted—Patagonia—confirmed that it was pausing its spend across every Facebook property for the whole month of July. Every other big brand we contacted—The North Face, Upwork, REI, and Dashlane—committed to pausing their spend across Facebook and Instagram, but wouldn’t confirm whether the Audience Network was also on the table.
Facebook hasn’t disclosed how much money this app-based business pulls in from its ad partners since 2015, when it was pulling in close to $1 billion in ad spending per quarter. Considering how the company’s ad budgets have ballooned since then, it’s worth assuming that the Audience network followed in kind.
Verizon, for its part, clarified that it wasn’t pausing its buys across Facebook and Instagram because these platforms were hotbeds for hate speech and violent content, but because all of that hate speech and violence was making its brand... look bad.
“We are pausing our spend with Facebook and Instagram because the ad placement the ADL highlighted went against the brand safety policies we have in place with our partners,” a spokesperson told Gizmodo. “We aren’t boycotting.”
In the ad industry, “brand safety” is the term marketers use when talking about keeping a brand’s reputation safe and sequestered from icky topics like sex, drugs, and gore. In other words, Verizon’s choice to pull its spend had less to do with the vile content on Facebook as a whole, and more to do with that vile content appearing next to a Verizon ad.
This is probably why its current ad ban doesn’t touch Facebook’s Audience Network—which runs through apps unaffiliated with the aforementioned vile content—nor does it touch on any of its oodles of subsidiaries that are, to the public eye, unaffiliated with a shiny Verizon logo. Verizon also declined to comment on whether the company would use the movement as a chance to disentangle Facebook’s deep, profitable ties to Verizon’s own ad-focused wing, Verizon Media.
It’s only fitting that Facebook’s response to the current campaign reads just as hollow as as the gestures themselves. A memo sent to some of Facebook’s major ad partners that was obtained by Business Insider mentioned that the company was “open to meeting” with the civil rights organizations muscling behind the movement, and welcomed any feedback they might have.
“Our focus is to act on what is most important: removing hate speech and content that harms communities, while using our platform for efforts like providing authoritative voting information and registering people to vote,” Facebook’s vice president of marketing, Carolyn Everson, wrote in the memo. “As always, we will meet with anyone to hear feedback as we have a major effort across the company being led by Mark on how the platform can be used to combat systemic racism.”
Maybe that effort would have a little more urgency if the brands involved cared more about the lives of Black and brown people rather than their own self-image.
Updated: 6/30/2020, 9:08 a.m. ET: This post has been updated with additional comment from Patagonia and Verizon.