The jury is still out on the long-term impact of the current Facebook advertiser boycott.
Perhaps we’ve seen this movie before. Facebook gets called out for malfeasance, followed by brands pulling dollars for a while—then the dust settles, the dollars go back into the platform, and it’s business as usual.
While it’s natural to question the staying power and impact of the current boycott, this time it does feel different. Coming during the perfect storm of a global health crisis, a toxic presidential election campaign and civil unrest, the stakes seem higher than ever. The resolve of those agitating for change—both on the streets and in the boardrooms—also seems stronger and more unwavering than in previous flare-ups. At least 500 brands are taking part in the July boycott including Coca-Cola, Ford, Patagonia, Levi’s, Starbucks, Adidas, Chipotle, Diageo, Denny’s, Pfizer, Unilever and Verizon.
There are several factors at play now that lead me to think that Facebook will finally be compelled to make fundamental changes to its business philosophy and practices for which various constituencies have clamored.
Truth makes a comeback
On Facebook, imposters of every stripe—political, social and commercial—have all too often been allowed to run amok. Facebook for years has gotten away with being a purveyor of disinformation and lies that are corrosive to the pillars that form civil society, including trustworthy journalism. Even after the Cambridge Analytica consumer privacy breach during the 2016 presidential election cycle—when global outrage directed toward the platform was at an all-time high—Facebook went back to running its business with its self-interests at the center at the expense of advertisers, publishers and consumers. Turning a deaf ear to the cacophony of falsehoods and bile pushed by partisans and fabulists was Facebook’s default mode.
If there is any silver lining to the current trifecta of crisis, it is that the cloud of complacency has lifted and corporations and consumers alike have had it with the platform’s lack of enforced accountability on those who have the loudest megaphones. The heat has been turned up and Facebook is starting to yield to the pressure. Labeling some of President Trump’s most outrageous posts is one important example with impact—symbolically, if not commercially.
As the populace increasingly demands more truth, accountability and even civility online, brands are also beginning to realize that by pooling their outrage collectively—starting with the current boycott—they have more leverage than they may have ever realized. Brand safety in quality content environments has always been a priority, but marketers have often yielded to the overwhelming scale of Facebook’s reach and consumer engagement. And while blue-chip brands may be a fairly small portion of the platform’s advertiser base in dollar terms, the material harm to Facebook’s brand threatens to endanger the company’s long-term success if the big brands stay out.
More than revenue at stake
Even a one-month boycott offers brands a chance to reassess their options. Competition is as fierce as ever from other walled gardens as well as upstarts like TikTok nipping at Facebook’s heels. This will only intensify. The other piece of leverage major brands have is that if they flee Facebook for an extended period, then the platform will become primarily a forum for small and medium-sized businesses, many of which lack reliability and sustainability.
Almost all of the criticism directed at Facebook has involved the toxicity and disinformation of much of its content. The same could also be said about some of its commerce base, loaded with many opportunists hawking products that perhaps haven’t been scrutinized as they should be. Think about the proliferation of protective face masks that appeared on the platform when the Covid-19 outbreak was peaking. Without the support of blue-chip brands, Facebook will lose much of its luster as a premium content environment. And if consumers realize that they can’t really trust much of anyone on the platform, they will leave en masse. We all need to remember that Facebook is not a publisher or content creator in the way that Netflix hedged its bets by investing in the creation and ownership of much of its programming slate.
Yes, this scenario may seem difficult to actualize, but it is possible to push back against bad actors and take significant steps forward for positive change. It was just a few years back when Procter & Gamble’s Marc Pritchard took a major stand against Facebook’s failings in reporting metrics. As a result of Pritchard whipping up a collective outrage, Facebook was pressured to make actual, tangible improvements, including agreeing to Media Rating Council (MRC) accreditation after misstating its video metrics.
More recently and on a broader scale, one need look no further for inspiration in marshaling collective outrage than the past month of civil and corporate uprising against racist police brutality. While there is obviously much work to be done, the stamina and global impact of these protests are unprecedented. Mark Zuckerberg has always positioned Facebook as some kind of uber-democracy. If you accept that premise, then you also know that in any healthy democracy, accountability is critical, and we collectively have the power to vote with media dollars as brands and with our time as users.