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The Facebook ad boycott ended months ago. But some big companies continue the fight

November 7, 2020, 4:00 PM UTC

Several big companies continue to boycott advertising on Facebook, long after a high-profile corporate uprising against the service’s lax policing of hate formally ended over the summer.

Verizon, Clorox, Coca-Cola, HP, and Lego are now in their fifth month of the ad boycott. Meanwhile, companies including Target, Nike, Netflix, Hershey, and Microsoft have vastly reduced their spending, according to digital marketing firm Pathmatics.

The boycott, which was intended to pressure Facebook to do more to combat hate and harassment, was only supposed to last during the month of July. And after July came and went, many of the hundreds of companies that participated resumed spending, in some cases hundreds of thousands of dollars weekly on Facebook ads.

But a relatively small number of businesses continued with their boycott. They want to see Facebook make more progress before they buy new ads on the service.

“As a people-centered company committed to our values, we feel compelled to take action against hate speech, which we believe will increase through the balance of the year,” Stacey Grier, Clorox’s chief marketing officer, said in a statement about its plans to boycott Facebook until 2021. “This creates an increasingly unhealthy environment for people and our purpose-driven brands.” 

The reluctance of companies like Clorox to return shows that Facebook still has work to do. But considering the relatively small numbers of holdouts, it raises the question of whether Facebook even needs to make additional changes.

Earlier this year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg championed the idea of freedom of speech on his social network. Since then, under intense pressure, he has tightened some of the service’s policies for what users can and can’t post.

For example, in recent months, Facebook has banned posts that deny or distort the Holocaust, include photos with people in blackface, and promote Jewish stereotypes.

The one-month boycott, called the Stop Hate for Profit campaign, was organized by civil rights and Internet safety advocates. After having failed to get Facebook to change its policies through talk, they decided that hitting the company in its pocketbook may get better results.

Though businesses of all sizes joined the boycott, Facebook didn’t seem very concerned about any potential effects. Zuckerberg reportedly told employees in July that advertisers would be back “soon enough.”

Ultimately, based on Facebook’s third-quarter earnings, the boycott appears to have had little financial impact. Revenue during the three months that included July rose 22% to $21.5 billion.

Facebook didn’t respond to a request for comment about the boycott. But in response to an analyst’s question during a conference call for its latest earnings, Susan Li, Facebook’s vice president of finance, touted Facebook’s revenue growth, fueled by small- and medium-size businesses. Because of the pandemic, many of those companies have shifted more of their sales online. As a result, they’re also buying more online ads.

Some big companies that participated in the initial boycott have, in fact, returned to Facebook. But they have vastly reduced the amount of money they are spending on ads.

Microsoft, which was Facebook’s third largest advertiser last year, spent nearly nothing in the third quarter on Facebook compared with an average of $5.1 million monthly in the preceding quarter, according to Pathmatics.

Microsoft declined to comment.

At the same time, Target, which was Facebook’s 25th largest advertiser last year, slashed spending from $1.7 million monthly on average in the second quarter to $419,000 in the third quarter. And Netflix cut its average monthly ad spending to $286,000 in the third quarter from $1.8 million in the one before it.

Some companies like Lego stopped advertising on Facebook, but they are still buying ads on Facebook-owned Instagram. The toymaker, which spent an average of nearly $436,000 monthly on Facebook ads in the second quarter, has since halted all Facebook marketing in the U.S. and Europe and plans to expand that ban to other regions as well. In addition to shifting ads to Instagram, Lego is also buying ads on YouTube and Snapchat. 

“We have resumed paid advertising on some global social media platforms…where we have assurances that action is being taken to address inappropriate content and protect our brand,” Lego said in a statement. “We have decided not to advertise on Facebook where we are less confident progress is being made.”

As for Clorox, it said it had increased its overall ad spending in the third quarter for digital, television, print, and audio by 30%, though it didn’t buy Facebook ads. The company declined to specify where it increased spending, only that it was on “other media.”

Prior to halting its ads, Clorox spent an average of $1.6 million monthly with Facebook during the second quarter. Though it said it will remain off the service through the remainder of the year, Clorox said it has been encouraged by Facebook’s recent moves to crack down on hate speech.

“In the past month it’s been encouraging to see important progress being made in the area of hate speech,” Grier said. “We’re continuing to have conversations with Facebook and are pleased to see these steps in the right direction.”