Skip to main content

Ad-vocating change

25 June 2020

By Henry Taylor, Executive

In the last week, several prominent brands have announced that they are pulling their advertising from Facebook over the platform’s approach to hate-speech and disinformation. The situation highlights the changing nature of corporate social responsibility and the increased scrutiny being placed on both advertisers and platforms that depend on advertising revenue.

In a campaign spearheaded by a number of prominent US civil rights groups, the brands, including The North Face, Ben & Jerry’s and Patagonia, are calling on the social network to take stronger action to address the proliferation of racist content and hate speech on the platform.

To an extent, the companies involved in the boycott may be preaching to the converted – Patagonia, for example, has long been regarded as an ‘activist company’, while Ben & Jerry’s has been active in the social and political space in recent years – even producing special edition ice cream flavours in support of Bernie Sanders. The company recently issued a statement calling for Americans to ‘dismantle white supremacy’ in the wake of the death of George Floyd.

Ultimately, it will take bigger companies following suit to make a significant dent in Facebook’s ad revenue, which stood at around $70bn last year. However, there are signs that larger advertisers may follow suit – consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble has not ruled out joining the boycott and is reviewing the places it advertises in response to the renewed attention on the issue of racism.

For Facebook, the situation is not entirely new. After the platform was used to live-stream the mass murder of 49 people at a New Zealand mosque last year, advertisers in the country urged companies around the world to pull their advertising from the platform. Facebook has, to its credit, made efforts to improve its moderation of content in recent years. The platform removed 86% of hate speech in 2019, up from 82.6% the year before. However, the renewed commercial pressure from advertisers may ultimately be a catalyst for the company to reconsider challenging questions about its purpose and its potential to bring about meaningful positive change. 

The impact of this latest boycott will ultimately depend on how many advertisers are willing to join this campaign. Given the widespread public support from major businesses for the Black Lives Matter movement, the boycott may be poised to generate exactly the kind of backers it needs to be most effective. However, with billions of potential consumers to be found – and targeted – on Facebook, it’s a brave business that turns its back on that audience. 

Nevertheless, in an age when businesses are increasingly expected to demonstrate a social purpose beyond simply employing people and making a profit, this will not be the last time consumers question the advertising policies for the products they buy. Perhaps this will be the first stage of a reappraisal of the relationship between social platforms and advertisers – and one that has the potential to bring about positive real-world change in the process.