Global products giant Unilever, which reported spending $9 billion on ads and marketing last year, on Friday became the latest large company to pull ads from Facebook over content on the platform. Telecommunications firm Verizon on Thursday also joined a pressure campaign to force the Menlo Park social media titan to take action against content seen as racist and divisive, saying it was pulling ads indefinitely.
Unilever’s withdrawal of U.S. Facebook ads will last till the end of the year, and the European conglomerate said it would also stop buying ads on Twitter for the same time period. “The polarized atmosphere places an increased responsibility on brands to build a trusted & safe digital ecosystem,” Unilever tweeted Friday morning.
The company in 2018 threatened both Facebook and Google with a withdrawal of ads over extremist content on the Silicon Valley companies’ platforms.
According to market-research firm eMarketer, U.S. spending on digital advertising this year is expected to top $134 billion, and Facebook is expected to haul in 23% of that revenue.
“Unilever’s announcement is notable, first because as one of the largest advertisers in the world, it has enough influence to persuade other brand advertisers to follow its lead, as they have sometimes done in the past,” eMarketer analyst Nicole Perrin said Friday in an emailed statement.
“It’s also notable because Unilever is going beyond what the organizers of the boycott have called for, in several ways. It’s pulling back spending for longer, on more platforms (including Twitter) and for more expansive reasons: Unilever’s statement cites ‘divisiveness’ as well as hate speech. That suggests a deeper problem with user-generated content platforms, as divisiveness is to be expected on any such platform that allows political expression.”
In response to this week’s moves by Unilever and Verizon, Facebook said in an emailed statement that it invests billions of dollars annually to “keep our community safe” and works with outside experts to keep policies up to date. “We’ve opened ourselves up to a civil rights audit, and we have banned 250 white supremacist organizations from Facebook and Instagram,” the company said, adding that investments in artificial intelligence have enabled it to find and take action against hate speech. “We know we have more work to do, and we’ll continue to work with civil rights groups … and other experts to develop even more tools, technology and policies to continue this fight.”
Twitter said in an emailed statement that it respected advertisers’ decisions and would continue to communicate closely with them.
“Our mission is to serve the public conversation and ensure Twitter is a place where people can make human connections, seek and receive authentic and credible information, and express themselves freely and safely,” said Sarah Personette, vice-president of global client solutions. “We have developed policies and platform capabilities designed to protect and serve the public conversation, and as always, are committed to amplifying voices from underrepresented communities and marginalized groups.”
The decisions by Unilever and Verizon also apply to Facebook-owned Instagram, and follow similar declarations by outdoors-products firms REI, The North Face and Patagonia, plus iconic ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s, which is owned by Unilever.
Verizon, which reported spending $3.1 billion on advertising last year, said it had “strict content policies” related to advertising and that it takes action when those are breached.
“We’re pausing our advertising until Facebook can create an acceptable solution that makes us comfortable and is consistent with what we’ve done with YouTube and other partners,” Verizon spokesman John Nitti said.
The six companies have signed onto the “Stop Hate for Profit” boycott campaign launched last week by civil rights groups including the Anti-Defamation League and the NAACP. The groups say Facebook, while raking in ad dollars, allowed its platforms to be used to incite violence against Black Lives Matter protesters, and that it has failed to protect Black users, refused to “call out Holocaust denial as hate,” and turned a blind eye to “blatant voter suppression on their platform.”
Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt in an “open letter” to advertisers Thursday said his group saw companies’ ads placed next to “hateful content” every day. “Your ad-buying dollars are being used by the platform to increase its dominance in the industry at the expense of vulnerable and marginalized communities who are often targets of hate groups on Facebook,” Greenblatt wrote.
“Our analysts were easily able to find examples like an ad from the auto insurance company Geico appearing alongside an antisemitic and racist conspiracy post accusing George Soros of funding Black civil rights efforts in order to fuel martial law,” he wrote.
“We found an advertisement for Verizon appearing next to a video from the conspiracy group QAnon drawing on hateful and antisemitic rhetoric, warning that the Federal Emergency Management Agency is planning to bring on civil war with concentration camps and coffins at the ready and claiming Americans are already quarantined in militarized districts.”