Pattern Matching

How the Facebook Ad Boycott Will End

Facebook may follow YouTube, which made real changes in response to a 2017 advertiser rebellion — and emerged stronger than ever

Will Oremus
Published in
7 min readJun 27, 2020
Photo: John Lamparski/Getty Images

Welcome back to Pattern Matching, OneZero’s weekly newsletter that puts the week’s most compelling tech stories in context.

What started as a call by civil rights groups last week for businesses to suspend advertising on Facebook and Instagram has snowballed into a legitimate crisis for the social media company. In a 24-hour period starting on Thursday, corporate giants Verizon, Unilever, and Coca-Cola announced that they would “pause” their advertising on either Facebook specifically, or social media in general, as part of the “Stop Hate for Profit” campaign. Organizers hope to pressure Facebook into more actively monitoring, moderating, and demonetizing hate speech and other misinformation.

Crises are nothing new for Facebook, obviously, but this one hits the company where few others have: square in the bottom line. Its stock price dipped 8% Friday as the big-name brands piled on. Whether it will lead to meaningful change in how the company does business, however, is unclear: Facebook’s ownership structure insulates CEO Mark Zuckerberg from shareholder pressure, and its ad revenue is so vast and diversified that it can easily withstand a short-term hit from major advertisers. Unilever, for example, spent an estimated $42 million on Facebook ads in the United States last year, per the New York Times. That’s a drop in the bucket of a Facebook ad business that rakes in some $17 billion per quarter.

The pattern

Ad boycotts as a mechanism for reforming social media.

💬 To understand how the Facebook ad boycott might play out, it’s worth revisiting a notable precedent that has been oddly overlooked in most of the current media coverage. In 2017, Verizon, Walmart, Pepsi, and others pulled their advertising from YouTube after an investigation by The Times showed the Google-owned video platform was running ads alongside content from Nazi and terrorist groups. Google responded with a public apology and a suite of substantive changes to its ad policies, tightening its