Do Boycotts Work In Advertising?

We live in a world where it takes very little effort for people to broadcast their opinions.

When a global tragedy occurs, we change our social media profile pictures so everyone knows “I stand with XXXX.”

When someone we wanted to win an election loses, we rant and rave across platforms. When a pandemic hatches, we tell everyone who will listen about our opinions on “the science,” even if we never so much as dissected a frog in high school.

So it’s not surprising — it’s quaint, even — that people would think their opinions would really make a difference when it comes to the rise and fall of big businesses.

Public opinion matters only insomuch as how it shapes businesses’ opinions. If there’s no critical mass, there’s no movement from the business being boycotted. And that means it’s an ineffective boycott.

We’re thinking about all this right now because of the recently inaugurated Facebook ad boycott, protesting what many see as the company’s lax auditing of hate speech and misinformation. It’s appropriately hashtagged #StopHateForProfit.



The social media behemoth has faced previous protests from users over its hate speech policies, and not much has come of them. Yes, Facebook has lost 15 million users since 2017, but that’s a drop in the bucket when you have 2.15 billion people posting worldwide. It sure didn’t impact the company’s $70 billion in revenue last year.

And yet, something about this boycott is different. This time, it’s not just Facebook fans but businesses. And the effort has moved beyond socially conscious advertisers like The North Face and Patagonia (which, of course, would be in on this) to the Coca-Colas and Fords.

Could Facebook actually listen? 

The bottom line is money talks and companies listen to the customers who provide that money … in this case, the advertisers, not the actual Facebook users (who represent the product these customers are after).

Hence, if you don’t have businesses behind you, your boycott won’t work. The only way to effect social change is when businesses boycott other businesses. Here’s how this strategy has played out in the past and what could happen with Facebook.

How to Get a Company to Listen: Tug the Purse Strings

Advertisers hold the trump card nearly every time. One recent example: The Washington Redskins.

For decades, people across the country have complained about the team name. The Federal Trademark Trial and Appeal Board even ruled it was a racial slur in 1999, though that decision was overturned later. As recently as 2018, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said the team name would stay, despite even President Barack Obama declaring a name change was in order.

But with the recent climate of nationwide unrest prompted by police killings of unarmed Black men, and resulting push to address the appropriateness of certain cultural symbols, Redskins came under the microscope again.

And this time, advertisers didn’t like what they saw — or, perhaps more accurately, they didn’t want to risk being associated with a name many suddenly saw as backward. Though they had no qualms about selling Redskins merchandise or sponsoring the team’s stadium the previous week, key advertisers became woke when a group of investment firms asked these companies to withdraw their support. It worked.

Once Redskins owner Dan Snyder got wind of Nike yanking Redskins merchandise off its virtual shelves and major sponsor FedEx joining the chorus of voices calling for change, the team immediately announced it was tossing the moniker.

So: When money speaks, power listens.

The Facebook Boycott: Why It May Work

In just a few weeks, more than 1,000 companies have said they are pulling ads from Facebook. That includes high rollers like Coca-Cola, which spends $4 billion annually on all advertising, Microsoft ($1.5 billion-plus annually) and Unilever ($1.4 billion-plus annually).

This has, so far, netted zero results because most large companies are very good at making it look like they’re listening to people’s concerns without actually doing anything that could impact their bottom lines.

But keep in mind that influential nonprofits such as the NAACP and Anti-Defamation League (ADL) are involved in this, too. They don’t hold purse strings but they know how to achieve effective results and persuade those who do have wallet power.

They’ve provided companies that may have been reticent to challenge Facebook with some powerful reminders, emphasizing their duty to appease their customers and employees. People realize posting a black square on social media or releasing bland support statements for diversity is no longer enough. Companies’ work policies and cultures must exemplify their outward-facing rhetoric if they want to maintain consumers’ trust.

Facebook knows the potential fiscal downside of policing hate speech more closely. Despite its reputation as a “liberal” company (which is weird considering it was started as a way to rate college women’s looks), Facebook is there to make money, first and foremost.

Hence an advertiser boycott, if it sticks, is going to make an impact. The question is will these advertisers have the gumption to stick to it?

Much of it depends on the organization of the entities behind the boycott. You can get a lot of companies to say they’ll support a boycott, but the implementation and continuation of such an endeavor are more complex than you might think.

It’s not like the CEO of Coca-Cola is buying the Facebook ads himself with a company credit card and can just stop payment. There are complexities to advertising, and it takes time for companies to disentangle themselves. Sometimes businesses don’t even realize they’re placing digital advertisements on a site until their agencies tell them.

What Does it Mean for a Boycott to “Work?”

Boycotts are undertaken to foment change. But how much change is enough?  

The group behind the Facebook boycott does have a list of demands and concerns. It’s difficult to imagine Facebook (which is notoriously stubborn) caving on much.

But a boycott during a recession is undoubtedly motivational. And since the majority of Facebook’s revenue comes from advertising, the movement has certainly caught Mark Zuckerberg’s attention.

Still, even when change happens, it requires vigilance to maintain. How many times have advertisers run from Fox News in the heat of the moment, only to quietly slink back when the hot glare of the spotlight fades? And remember three years ago all the outrage over similar speech issues on YouTube? A few sustainable changes came about from that boycott, but largely the issue got lost in post-presidential-election haze.

Everyone in advertising should be paying attention to this boycott. It’s a fascinating real-time lesson in effective and ineffective social protest. And if Facebook caves on anything, there will be a lot of businesses cheering about Zuckerberg eating crow.

Policy can move the needle. As the rising demand for social change reminds us, there’s still a long way to go in this country before we achieve freedom and justice for all, and raising a voice while quelling the cash register is one way to do it.

Because the other truth about boycotts is this — neither side wants to be on the losing end of them, and in a recession the stakes are even higher.

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