As the Facebook boycott ends, brand advertisers are split on what happens next with their marketing budgets

Facebook pitch deck

No boycott, it seems, can stop Facebook’s ad business from rumbling on. Despite the prospect of some advertisers continuing to boycott after it has officially ended on Friday last week, that lost revenue is likely to barely register on the platform’s balance sheet.   

While the social network didn’t share its earnings for the full month during its latest earnings call last week, it reported ad revenue for the first three weeks of July were in line with the rest of its 2020 year-on-year ad revenue growth rate of 10%. In other words, despite the slew of advertisers that made a fuss about pulling their ads, Facebook’s ad business will continue to thrive — even as some of its biggest advertisers keep away.

Of the top 20 Facebook advertisers, according to Pathmatics’ 2019 data, five of them — Microsoft, Unilever, Diageo, Coca-Cola and CVS — are keeping media dollars away from the social network. In 2019, those advertisers spent a combined $237.4 million on ads on Facebook, per Pathmatics.

Like many of the platform’s top 20 advertisers, these five had already been cutting Facebook budgets over the last three years. And while none of the advertisers ruled out never returning to Facebook, they weren’t sure about when — and how — they would. Some like Unilever have said they won’t buy ads there for the remainder of the year, while others like CVS have paused spending until the end of August when they will review whether to return, a company spokesperson said. 

Other advertisers like Diageo and Coca-Cola are less specific on when they will return. Diageo hasn’t made any public statement on what will happen to its media dollars on Facebook, but a source close to the business said its pause will continue indefinitely. Coca-Cola, on the other hand, has at least detailed its next steps. 

In an update to its month-long boycott of all social networks, the beverage giant said ad dollars would remain paused on Facebook and Instagram worldwide indefinitely. It has, however, started to buy ads on YouTube and LinkedIn again as of August 1. Still, any return to buying ads on both Facebook and Instagram will be based on how Facebook’s efforts to suppress hate speech stack up against its own new safeguards for hateful content online that are being developed.

“While we’ve made progress, our journey is not complete,” said Coca-Cola in the online update. “At this time, as we continue to assess each platform, we can confirm that our re-entry to social media will be a phased approach by channel.”

Beam Suntory has taken a similar stance.

“We are extending our pause of all paid Facebook and Instagram advertising in the US across our brand portfolio,” said a spokeswoman for the advertiser. “We have yet to see sufficient progress to change our approach and continue to hope this collective action helps catalyze positive change and accountability.”

Other advertisers that have made their own assessments of how Facebook is dealing hate speech and misinformation since the boycott began at the beginning of July say they are happy with what they’ve seen.

Take outdoor apparel manufacturer The North Face. The company was the first high-profile advertisers to join the boycott — and now one of the first to announce its return. 

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson from The North Face said: 

“We are proud to have been the first large brand to announce support for the ADL and NAACP through our adoption of the #StopHateforProfit movement. Since we signed on 19. June, we have held constructive conversations with Facebook to clearly outline the areas where we want to see tangible changes.

“We are encouraged by the initial progress and recognize that change doesn’t happen overnight. That’s why we will continue to engage in dialogue with Facebook to hold them accountable for the actions they plan to implement. We intend to resume our working relationship with Facebook and Instagram in August, but have joined our parent company, VF Corporation, and other VF brands to create a coalition that will hold regular check-ins with the Facebook team to continually evaluate their progress and determine on an ongoing basis if they are a partner and platform that upholds our values.”

For all the lingering concerns from the likes of Coca-Cola and Diageo over how much Facebook is prepared to change its management of hate speech, it has made concessions to advertisers’ concerns.  

For example, it tightened measures to protect immigrants, migrants, refugees and asylum seekers from hateful ads targeted at them, and took the decision to label content as “newsworthy” that otherwise would be removed for violating Facebook’s policies. While the value of these measures is debatable — as evidenced by the boycott’s organizers announcing their “disappointment” at Facebook’s unwillingness to commit to concrete solutions for addressing hate speech and misinformation on the platform — the social network has seemingly done enough to appease some of its detractors.

Heineken has also restarted buying ads on Facebook and Instagram.

“Due to concern about harmful content in social media, Heineken made the decision to pause Facebook and Instagram activity in July” said a spokesperson in an emailed statement. “We have since engaged in detailed conversations with Facebook and are pleased to see their new commitments based on a four-point action plan formulated by the Global Alliance for Responsible Media. While we are resuming our advertising on Facebook platforms as of August, we will continue our dialogue with Facebook as they make progress against the new commitments.”

While the coalition of civil rights groups including the Anti-Defamation League and the NAACP behind the Stop Hate for Profit boycott had clear expectations of the concessions Facebook needed to make in July, many of the advertisers on it didn’t. Some like Patagonia echoed the boycott’s demands, but others barely mentioned them and in some cases, like Unilever, distanced their own boycott from the wider campaign.

And then there were those like Pernod Ricard who joined the boycott but doubted whether it would push Facebook to change. Like others, the advertiser has started spending on Facebook again but is also developing an app that will allow people to report hate speech they see online. 

With so many contrasting views the outcome of the month-long boycott was predestined to be fragmented.

“The loser is the social movement itself,” said Bob Regular, CEO of ad tech vendor Infolinks. “Facebook proved they would not move very far and there’s not one leverage point that can deter them except mass humiliation — which is unlikely since they control the central messaging platform that can humiliate them.”

The rest of the top 20 Facebook advertisers, like Clorox, either said they didn’t have anything new to add to their statements at the start of the boycott or were unable to provide a response by the time this article was published. Pfizer, for one, declined to comment outright.

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