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3 Lessons from the Facebook Ad Boycott

July 8, 2020 — by Daniel Sepulveda    

It’s been almost a month since leading civil rights groups initiated a movement called #StopHateforProfit calling on advertisers to leave Facebook until their demands to eliminate the monetization of hateful content, misinformation and disinformation from the platform are met. The story of how that boycott movement came to be is well told in this Politico article.

Hundreds of the world’s biggest advertisers have heeded the call. The movement is dramatically more successful than anyone could have imagined from that perspective. Unfortunately, Mark Zuckerberg has dug in and is refusing to change the platform’s practices, arguing that advertisers will come back to the platform—at some point.

Facebook has some of the best engineers in the world and is an incredibly powerful platform. But that is not the right lesson to learn from this situation. As a company that also deals in digital advertising, we believe there are three key lessons for society and marketers to take away from this event.

1. Advertisers have both the power and responsibility to drive the development of a healthy media ecosystem, and the Facebook of today is not healthy.

Advertisers are Facebook’s actual customers, not its users. They are ours as well, but we cannot and would not ignore their concerns. The fact that Facebook believes it can is a market problem. The fact that it does is a societal problem. And it’s one advertisers can solve by shifting their spend to better, safer, more curated media available across the open Internet.

Facebook is a juggernaut in advertising because it is cheap to advertise on, it knows its billions of users intimately and it is designed to keep them engaged on the platform by amplifying all kinds of content, some good, some deplorable. Advertisers flock to it because they see the low price at which they can reach millions of people in a highly targeted way. But that price does not capture the full cost to their brand.

Every responsible corporation that is mission-driven and focused on building long-term, mutually respected relationships with consumers is damaged every time its ads appear next to hateful, racist and/or inaccurate content. By its own admission, Facebook only catches 90% of hate speech on its platform and, given the volume of content that it publishes, that other 10% constitutes a lot of awfulness.

What the last two weeks have shown us is that advertisers from Unilever to CVS recognize that it is their responsibility to society to not fund that kind of content.  It is inconsistent with their own values, and it’s not what their customers want them to do. It will be interesting to see if mission-driven, direct-to-consumer brands and others with smaller advertising budgets follow suit for the same reason.

2. Advertisers are overspending on Facebook to the detriment of news publishers and diverse voices curating healthy content on the open Internet.

The percentage of spend that advertisers funnel into Facebook comes from media budgets that could be going into high-quality news publishers or websites independent of Facebook. As a result of that disproportionate spend, Zuckerberg has argued they can wait out the boycott without changing their practices or listening to their customers. They believe there is no competitive alternative that can do what their advertisers want. They are mistaken.

Advertisers would do well for themselves and society to ensure that they finance more pathways to consumers on more responsible media. The decline in advertising on news publishers, local and national, and the lack of investment in minority-owned or -serving publishers is in large part because advertisers are funneling their spend to Facebook. Advertisers may have brand-safety concerns over advertising on the open Internet or may worry that the scale isn’t there to be effective on curated media, but the market is addressing those concerns. There are strong brand-safety and suitability tools to ensure that advertising on the open Internet and in the news specifically is done intelligently and safely. There are also marketplace solutions coming together to enable buying on minority-serving publishers or local news at scale easily.

3. All of us engaged in the business of the Internet need to do a better job of ensuring it finances responsible media.

MediaMath as a business was born from the idea that the power of mathematics could be brought to the efficient purchasing of media. We focused on building the smartest tools and enabling the most cutting-edge tech solutions to make that process easy and effective for our clients. But we recognized a few years ago that we needed to elevate the “media” in MediaMath to a higher place of prominence because it was time for the ecosystem to evolve. We have partnered with NewsGuard to help weed out misinformation from the supply we access and are working with supply-side platforms independent of Facebook to create minority- and news-specific sources of inventory that our clients can target. Context matters, content matters, brown and Black voices and their stories matter. Let’s start financing the right things.

We want to be part of the solution, and we want to partner with publishers and advertisers that have learned these lessons as well. We’re ready if you are.

Daniel Sepulveda

As SVP for Policy and Advocacy, Danny Sepulveda joined MediaMath after spending two decades in public service, including work at the highest levels of the US government. In the Obama administration, Danny served as Ambassador and Deputy Assistant Secretary in the U.S. State Department under Secretary of State John Kerry, where he traveled the world working on high-level initiatives including cyber policy, digital economy, internet governance and human rights. Prior to that, he worked as a senior aide to three US Senators, including then Senators Barack Obama and John Kerry. Danny’s role at MediaMath is focused on shaping, implementing and communicating MediaMath’s policies and practices around the consumer value proposition, privacy protection and public policy.