'Stop Hate for Profit', Facebook boycott, deserves a sustainable and meaningful solution
Major global brands took the decision to withdraw their advertising spend on Facebook and Instagram for the month of July, as part of the Stop Hate for Profit campaign.
But the reality is that for many businesses, especially those with large consumer customer bases, they won’t be able to operate for long without switching this advertising back on, because demand and necessity are there, and because any continued absence will raise huge opportunities for challenger brands.
What’s more, this decision by global brands masked a number of other inconvenient truths:
- advertisers have been placing the blame for widespread hate on the shoulders of the social media platforms alone, when the reality is that change needs to come from every business and person moderating these companies
- society as a whole must play its part to force sustainable change - not just businesses, and not just social media platforms. This needs to have a stronger program, starting with our education system, one that runs for longer than a month or two
- consumers of content and product need to be prepared to change their habits in ways that support companies that take anti-hate positions, and stop spending with those organisations that do not take a strong position for equality and respectful engagements.
- as a response to the civil unrest following the deaths in America of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery and Rayshard Brook, the Anti-Defamation League is running the Stop Hate for Profit movement, calling out the role of social media in the sharing of associated hate and racist content
- with 2.7 billion users, and US$70 billion in advertising revenue, Facebook was targeted. A number of large, global advertisers, including Adidas, Ford, Unilever, Coca-Cola, Volkswagen and Disney, pulled their advertising for the month of July. Some organizations also paused their organic content, and some advertiser have yet to return
- the local impact (Australian brands making the decision to pull their advertising) has been minimal. We did not see local brands (that aren't global companies) take a "hold" position on ad spend. (As journalist Tess Ingram noted in the The West Australian, no large Australian companies joined the boycott, though a number were watching carefully)
In social media there are three things that keep people on each of the platforms, derived from the values – and also the value - they see and experience: information, entertainment and community connection.
As consumers and advertisers flocked to social media in their billions, these channels morphed from being shared online communities, promising empowerment, and enhanced personal connections based on shared values and experiences, into what they are today: powerful and valuable commercial digital platforms that make it very easy for consumers to like, comment, share, vote and buy from whoever delivers the best value.
As the number of social media users grew, the platforms overlaid algorithms that learned what people liked and where they engaged, and then served content aligned with those habits and sentiments. Today, platforms' large data sets allow them to continuously test the smallest tweak to ensure that what they do delights the largest-possible majority – and make money.
So while it might make sense for large companies able to sustain a short-term hit to sales to reduce their ad spend, the impact and any long-term momentum will likely be short-lived. Time will tell.
Elsewhere, smaller businesses can't afford to take an ad-free hiatus for any length of time by choice if they are to survive.
What's more, Covid-19 has seen a huge reduction in digital media spend as companies grapple with the economic, health, business and social implications of the pandemic. Bauer Media permanently closed eight titles just a couple of weeks ago, suffering a drop in advertising spend of 57.4% in just one month (May 2020). With global print titles of this stature simply ceasing to exist, it creates more pressure for brands to turn to digital and social media to fill the void - where consumers actually are.
And the events of the last two weeks in Victoria, and the new six-week lock-down now in force, remind us that businesses are in ever-more precarious positions.
The other factor at play here is that consumers and society are realising that social media and digital companies are acting as commercial organizations and policy makers, and society is expecting them to compromise their commercial interests in favour of the greater social good.
That is unrealistic, and at the scale at which all the social media platforms operate, difficult in practice.
Yet: we have seen core values and ethics become more important to consumers. Consumers have been quick to criticise, or avoid spending with, businesses that have been insensitive to the political, social and health impacts of campaigns designed to bring awareness to #blacklivesmatter and #stophateforprofit.
So the question is: what should happen?
Who has the power to force meaningful change?
The answer to removing hate: I think the answer has to be to push for sustained, meaningful, long-term change across all channels.
Change comes from education, and it would be better to see budgets used to change the face that society and brands present, with active and public stands as to what is acceptable behaviour from them, their employees and their customers. They need to promote and regulate the standards and positions that define how they operate, as part of a broader and ongoing campaign that looks at every aspect of our politics, education, health and society.
Education is everyone’s responsibility, not just Facebook Chairman Mark Zuckerberg's.
And it requires investment and real sustainable change beyond a month’s hold on advertising spend.
The reality is that the fragility of our economy requires a growth strategy and mindset, and investment in digital. It therefore has to be based on strong equality and sustainable values at every moment of truth. Brands and individuals who are genuinely committed to creating great customer experiences and delivering great value within a broader set of shared and authentic values, will continue (and deserve) to do well.
And as a result, they will bring about greater change.
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