With the Facebook ad boycott, the push for inclusivity arrives in ad buying

As more advertisers pull money from Facebook over its handling of hate speech, attention has turned to how their dollars are funding similar divisive content across the rest of the internet, right down to how they segment audiences.

As June comes to a close, some of the world’s largest advertisers including Unilever, Verizon, Diageo, Honda and Coca-Cola have canceled ad buys with Facebook for at least until the end of July.

The spark, the killing of George Floyd last month and global protests it spurred, prompted a reckoning with racism for those businesses that made them quickly align themselves with protesters calling for Facebook to be defunded over its handling of hate speech. In doing so, advertisers have set a precedent for whom they buy ads from in the future. 

“This is a good start but anti-racist work must be continued and sustained, underpinned by tangible actions throughout the business and industry,” said Leila Fataar, founder of marketing and communications company Platform 13. “Truly acknowledging, facing, and addressing the uncomfortable truths about yourself and your business is what’s required. This is not a situation that can be ‘fixed’ overnight, or in a month or even by the end of the year.”

What the advertisers exiting Facebook are grappling with is how to reconcile their pledges to defund racist rhetoric with their traditional business practices on the huge social platform. Granted, many of them haven’t had to think critically about racism or their own role in perpetuating it until now. But in their rush to say they’re anti-racist, advertisers haven’t fully thought through the disconnect between their messaging and the actualities. Ads bought by advertisers including Walt Disney, Amazon, Microsoft via ad tech vendors appeared on stories spreading hate speech and misinformation about the protests between June 22 and June 26, per the Global Disinformation Index. This happened at the same time many of those companies were publicly rebuking racism.

“You’re starting to see advertisers think more carefully about where they buy ads and the impact that has on society,” said Jerry Daykin, media director for GlaxoSmithKline in EMEA. “Programmatic technology puts focus on reaching the right consumers but less on the context in which that happens. That has left many marketers distant from the voices behind authentic journalism and quality content.”

Daykin, alongside Electronic Arts’ former global head of marketing intelligence Belinda Smith, is leading a task force for the World Federation of Advertisers to come up with a series of steps their peers can take to ensure they’re not just promoting messages of diversity and inclusivity but are also funding businesses that do the same. “It’s important to make it easier for advertisers to manage their media to systematically challenge the funding of hate speech and misinformation, and instead to invest in building a quality internet,” said Daykin

Some advertisers are already redistributing media dollars to minority community publishers. For example, GroupM is building private programmatic marketplaces of those media owners on the instruction of some advertisers in recent weeks. “There’s a concerted push on minority publications right now to see what we can do to support them as well as make sure they’re a permanent part of working with advertisers,” said GroupM’s global vp of brand safety John Montgomery. 

Other advertisers are looking at Black-owned podcasts. AT&T is working with Pod Digital Media, a multicultural podcast network, to find sponsorship opportunities for its Cricket Wireless network. “AT&T wants to support Black voices by identifying a mix of podcasts that not only align to their audience but also have the scope for them to make long-term media commitments,” said Gary Coichy, CEO of Pod Digital Media. 

Making those commitments won’t come without careful consideration of existing media strategies. In fact, some advertisers are already mulling how to move away from classic demographics to find more nuanced ways to segment people based on their behavior, personal interests and life stage. Their rationale is that there are some segmentation practices that incentivize segregation. An example of this is the catchall term of BAME, which lumps together Black, asian and minority ethnic groups, who all have their own rich heritage, experiences and interests. 

“We’ve seen through our communities that this is an area that’s not improving as fast it could and the events over the last few weeks have underlined how important it is for marketers to act now,” said The North Face’s vp of marketing Steve Lesnard. He said the company would have more to say on how its own media strategies are changing in the coming weeks. 

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“Segmentation is always going to hurt Black people,” said Steve Stoute, CEO of agency Translation. “Agencies will segment African Americans based on the fact that they represent 13% of the population, but that doesn’t capture the dominant cultural influence those people have. The value created by Black people is never going to equate to value earned through traditional segmentation.”

While these changes won’t compensate for advertisers’ systemic failures to foster racial equity in the past, it’s clear that they are no longer able to sit on the fence.

“When it comes to our welfare and sustainability messaging we’ve always talked about diversity and inclusivity, but I can honestly say that we’ve not been as strong about those issues as we have about animal welfare,” said Handsome Brook Farms CMO, Matthew Sherman. The death of Mr. Floyd and the subsequent civil rights protests have forced a reassessment of that stance, said Sherman. 

For example, Sherman has asked the company’s media and PR agencies to find minority community publishers and black influencers for his ad dollars. “We want to be more supportive at the lower end of the funnel to those companies that may not have steady access to funding because the likes of ABC and Hulu are going to be fine without my dollars,” said Sherman. 

“To show our support of the Black Lives Matter,” added Sherman. “We’re going to use our messaging and dollars to support social justice, amplify voices as well as make donations and identify new media organizations to work with.”

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