Social media boycotts: What do they mean for consumers and advertisers in South Africa?

Attributed to: Olwethu Bandezi

Social media platforms like Facebook offer advertisers a cost-effective way to reach their target markets. But what happens when certain groups aren’t happy with how those platforms manage the kind of content that is published and shared? Earlier this year, a coalition of American-based human rights organisations started a movement to compel Facebook to prevent the occurrence of hate speech and extremist communities on the social media network. To do this, they encouraged businesses to pause or pull their advertising spend from the platform.

Called ‘Stop Hate for Profit’, the impact of this campaign was far-reaching when it started, but it’s not clear what the long-term consequences will be. We explore the movement, its effects and the response of South African companies and advertisers.

More about the movement

Stop Hate for Profit is a coalition of businesses, civil rights bodies and non-profit organisations that have banded together to push for visible change on the Facebook platform. The movement calls on Facebook to provide more support to people who are targets of racism, anti-semitism and hate; to stop generating ad revenue from misinformation and harmful content; and to increase safety in private groups.

Over 1,000 brands have joined the cause so far, but they have not all taken a uniform approach. Some brands, such as Adidas USA, paused paid media for only the month of July, while brands like Unilever and Hershey have stopped media spend on the platform for the rest of 2020. Others, including Starbucks and Coca Cola, opted to take a broad approach, freezing advertising on all social media for the time being. Certain brands, like Verizon and Honda, took a harder stance to stop advertising spend until Facebook offers effective solutions

Although the number of brands involved makes it look like the campaign has the power to effect real change, some large corporates may just be using the movement as an opportune time to save funds as they face decreased demand because of the coronavirus pandemic

Effects on Facebook

As a result of the campaign, Facebook’s stocks decreased by 8% between 26 and 29 June, wiping out roughly $60bn in market value – but by 1 July, Facebook’s stock had bounced back to pre-boycott levels.

The truth is that Facebook’s big advertisers only represent 20% of the company’s ad revenue. Facebook’s advertising business is built off a base of 7-8 million advertisers, most of which are small to medium businesses that rely heavily on Facebook and Instagram for sales and leads. ​This is the audience that could move the needle most effectively, but they are also the most reluctant to join the cause.

Where does the power lie?

What this campaign has demonstrated is that advertisers have the power to challenge Facebook for meaningful change, but also that advertisers won’t permanently leave the social media platform unless audiences leave it first. As important as the campaign may be, it still needs consumer backing for it to be successful.

Looking at American consumers provides an interesting perspective. Recent survey findings show that 41% of Americans were not aware of the campaign at all. But also, just 31% of Americans who participated in the survey said they approved of the boycott.

This poses the question, can this campaign achieve real change if many consumers aren’t aware of it, and won’t leave Facebook?

How have South African advertisers responded?

Meanwhile, the cause has reached South Africa shores and we are seeing a local response – much as Black Lives Matter sparked conversations around South Africa’s social issues like police brutality and gender-based violence.

When it comes to South Africa, big businesses like Diageo, Coca Cola, Sygnia, Microsoft and Vans decided to heed the global call for change and suspended their ad spend on the platform. Other brands, such as SAB, Ford, Nedbank, Absa, Standard Bank and Outsurance, who may be struggling to connect in traditional ways during the lock down, remained neutral or continued to advertise on Facebook.

The reality is that local businesses have been severely affected by the pandemic and likely cannot afford to pause spending on Facebook. Therefore, there is a need to consider effective alternatives before they resort to a boycott.

Customers are key to a cohesive response

It is clear that corporates have the power to push for change relating to how digital platforms such as Facebook operate, but for large organisations to commit to this cause past the COVID-19 pandemic, there needs to be a strong call from their customer base. If the customer base of large corporates continue to use Facebook, and do not join the call for social change, all of this momentum will go to waste as organisations will soon abandon the cause and return to the platform in order to reach their target markets and remain profitable.