The Consequences of the Facebook Ad Blockade

A few weeks ago, The Cog Blog commented on the boycotting of Facebook by a variety of big name brands. How’s that been going?

This advertiser blockade is nothing like those from the dim and distant past, when advertisers or (more likely their media agencies) would pull spend from publications or broadcasters with whom they had a particular beef.

Those were almost always a part of the negotiation dance, performed in public. Any kind of lengthy boycott most definitely had an impact.

Facebook really wasn’t ever going to be seriously impacted, financially. In fact when a few hundred advertisers stamped their feet and stopped or suspended spending, the Facebook share price hardly moved.

Facebook has such a massively long tail of advertisers (8 million, generating around US$70 billion in revenue in 2019, according to a report on CNN) that a few months of no cash even from the likes of a Unilever hardly registers.

It would though be wrong to say that just because there is no financial impact Facebook couldn’t care less. They are at heart an advertising business.

What worries Facebook is regulation and taxes – they would really far rather have the bare minimum of either. Unfortunately for them various Governments would prefer rather more of both, and these Governments, or their agencies (select committees and equivalents) are starting to make some uncomfortable (for Facebook) noises about enquiries, investigations and the like.

And who might these agencies call to give witness? Who might be amongst those that they might be inclined to listen to? Whose lobbying is likely to cause them to investigate further and wider?

Yes, those large corporations, political party donors and captains of industry, otherwise known as major advertisers.

Politicians have never felt any great empathy for the media business. Television is something they tend to see as a medium to appear on, as opposed to watch.

Newspapers were either left-wing pinko rags holding them to account and thus to be silenced or ridiculed as much as possible, or useful idiots to be used to dis-seminate whatever the message of the day was decreed to be.

The difference back then of course was that newspapers had editors, TV stations had heads of programmes both of whom were responsible for the overall tone and the individual pieces of content absorbed by the great unwashed (that’s you and me).

Governments had no particular reason to listen to advertisers bleating on about the rising cost of TV advertising, or how unfair it was that the Daily Blah was conducting a campaign against a particular ingredient key to the advertiser’s well-being. All of that was a matter between respective commercial enterprises to be played out within the boundaries of freedom of expression.

And should there come a time when politicians felt the need to act (the phone hacking scandal here in the UK was one such) then there was someone to hold to account, someone responsible, someone to send to prison.

The social media channels are of course different, with their content very largely created by the platform’s users. Hence the wide range of opinions on offer; and the occasional tiptoeing over the line into hate, misleading conspiracy theories, bigotry and so on.

And it’s these characteristics and Facebook’s (in particular) inability or unwillingness to address what they see as a freedom of speech issue that’s upset so many and led to the advertiser boycott.

The boycott may not impact Facebook financially in the short-term, but it will have one possibly unforeseen consequence. And that is that FB doesn’t work quite as well quite as often as FB and its acolytes thought.

There are increasing signs that those of us whose world consists not of small local businesses but of major brands have finally realised that what works for some businesses in some circumstances simply doesn’t work for everyone, always.

Furthermore, gross impressions as a proxy for effectiveness belongs in the dark ages.

This hour-long video (it’s well worth the time to watch it through) from the IPA featuring Peter Field, Orlando Wood and James Hurman and curated by MediaCom’s Sue Unerman makes the point powerfully in the last 10 minutes or so.

Maybe us old gits have been right all along. However big the audience numbers the platforms have their limitations – just like every other medium.

You wouldn’t use roadside OOH for long copy; why would you use Facebook as a creator and builder of brand imagery?

It might have taken a boycott to hammer that truth home.


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