Well over 300 companies in the U.S. and around the world have joined a growing campaign to boycott advertising on Facebook, as pressure builds on the social-media giant to better police hate speech and misinformation on its platform.
Corporate Chicago, however, is only now just starting to join in.
The lack of Chicago-area corporations on the expanding list of firms saying they will stop or pause advertising on Facebook prompted Crain’s to contact 10 local consumer-facing companies to see where they stand on the issue. Three—Walgreens, BMO Harris Bank and Conagra Brands—told Crain’s they’re joining the effort and will stop advertising on Facebook and Instagram, which Facebook owns. Conagra is halting ads for the remainder of 2020, going beyond most U.S. companies, which typically are halting advertising for this month to see how Facebook responds.
Corporate heavyweights in other parts of the country haven’t been so cautious. Coca-Cola, based in Atlanta, was an early supporter and gave the movement launched by the North Face, a company known for its progressive activism, some traditional corporate heft. Seattle-based Starbucks and Minneapolis-based Target, which together spent about $142 million on Facebook last year, have halted advertising for now.
It’s not entirely clear why corporate Chicago has been so reticent until very recently. But there are theories.
One is that industries that tend to take on more of an activist bent—technology, outdoors brands, and travel and hospitality—aren’t heavily represented here, offers Brayden King, a professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management who studies how social activists influence corporate social responsibility efforts, organizational change and legislative policymaking. The Chicago-based companies that are in the latter group—United Airlines and Hyatt Hotels—are among the worst-hit by the economic contraction associated with the pandemic and may not be advertising like they used to anyway, he notes.
Another important factor is Facebook’s size and scale. For some companies, halting advertising there could hurt their businesses.
“Facebook is just such a powerful platform on which to advertise,” King says. “There are few platforms that have the reach Facebook does.”
EMPLOYEES IN MIND
Research has shown, King adds, that oftentimes corporations joining boycotts or similar campaigns have their employees more in mind than they do their customers. He isn’t surprised that Coca-Cola, for example, was an early sign-up because Atlanta, where many of its employees live, has been a focal point of the Black Lives Matter movement.
And at a time when worker-employer relations are fraught anyway, due to the severity of the recession and the uncertainty over when normal economic activity will resume, a company aligning its values with its workforce’s in a way that goes beyond issuing a press release or statement is a smart way to improve employee loyalty.
“It’s hard to imagine them giving a lot of pay increases to employees right now,” he says.
The Chicago-area companies that have opted recently to join the boycott say they’re looking for stronger measures than Facebook has outlined so far.
“We stand by our company values including broadmindedness and integrity, and believe there is no place for hate, intolerance and racism in the world or on social media,” says Conagra, which owns many well-known food brands like Birds Eye and Hunt’s.
Says BMO Harris in an email: “BMO will pause its advertising on Facebook and Instagram during the month of July, while we continue our ongoing dialogue with Facebook on changes they can make to their platforms to reduce the spread of hate speech. At BMO, we are committed to zero barriers to inclusion.”
Walgreens: “WBA’s brands are withdrawing paid advertising from Facebook and Instagram across the U.K. and U.S. for the month of July 2020. During this pause, we will examine our marketing strategy, to ensure that our advertising spend goes toward platforms with a commitment to address misinformation and hate speech.”
Two others, Molson Coors and Constellation Brands, owner of the Corona and Modelo beer brands, among others, issued recent statements saying they’re halting Facebook ads for July to see how the platform responds to demands that it do more to stop divisive and often inaccurate messaging.
The campaign gathered steam with the momentum behind addressing racial inequality in the U.S. once and for all following the shocking killing of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. Otherwise, companies that responded to Crain’s say they’re sympathetic to the aims of the boycott movement but are monitoring the situation for now. They include Kraft and State Farm. Northern Trust says it doesn’t advertise on Facebook.
Mondelez International (maker of Oreo cookies and Ritz crackers, among many other food and candy brands) says in a statement that it’s focused on ensuring its ads aren’t shown alongside offensive content. “Brand safety is crucially important to us and we are in continuous dialogue with our partners, including Facebook, on the measures they are taking to ensure our ads appear in the right contexts in all media,” Mondelez says.
Says State Farm, which is monitoring: “We believe in a world where everyone is treated fairly and with civility. We are concerned with the current discourse and we’re hopeful dialogue can occur that will yield a more civil tone.”
Not responding to requests for comment were pharmaceutical company AbbVie and McDonald’s.
BMO Harris’ move to join the boycott follows CEO David Casper’s decision last month to join a commission launched by the treasurers of the state of Illinois and city of Chicago to address systemic racism and its negative effect on financial opportunities for African Americans in Chicago. BMO Harris is the second-largest local bank by deposits. Casper was joined by five other local bank CEOs or regional presidents, including Michael O’Grady, CEO of Northern Trust.
For his part, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said the company is taking the complaints about content on the platform seriously. He’s outlined some actions in recent days, including further restrictions on ads that denigrate people based on their ethnicity, sexual orientation, immigration status and other identifiers. But organizations like the NAACP say the actions don’t go far enough.
It remains to be seen how much Chicago corporations end up participating in the boycott. The list is growing seemingly every day.
But in terms of gaining credit from consumers who support the pressure tactics on Facebook, as well as the campaign for racial justice, the value to companies diminishes the longer they wait to join, King says.
“If you’re the 100th company to join, you get far less ‘credit’ than if you’re among the first five.”