In the social-media age, ad boycotts receive more attention, but that trend hasn't made them more effective.
In the past year or so, several brands have been pressured by consumers and activists to pull their ad spending from controversial outlets. Last spring, a number of brands fled Google Inc.'s YouTube when their ads began running alongside extremist content on the site. Companies have also joined ad boycotts against Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham of Fox News. And more recently, some advertisers left Facebook Inc. over criticism that an outside company, Cambridge Analytica, improperly handled data on tens of millions of Facebook users.
These boycotts, however, haven't usually lasted long. Some ended in weeks. Their short-lived nature has led some observers to believe that such measures are mostly intended for the boycotting brands to save face and appease their customers, rather than to take an ethical stand.
“Brands express moral outrage when they need to appear to express moral outrage,” says Brian Wieser, a media analyst at Pivotal Research Group. Once consumer concern abates, he says, many brands will quietly reinstate their advertising.
Advertisers simply can't afford to forgo attractive media opportunities, industry experts say, particularly on Google and Facebook, which control the majority of the digital ad market.
Nicole Perrin, a senior analyst at eMarketer, who recently published a report on brand-safety issues, says there hasn't been a meaningful reduction in spending on Google or Facebook as a result of recent boycotts by brands. Both companies have said they are addressing the issues raised by the ad boycotts against them. Google announced late last year, for instance, that by the end of 2018 it planned to increase to 10,000 the number of employees monitoring extremist material, while Facebook has, among other things, committed to improving its software to better detect unsavory content.
According to Ms. Perrin, however, brands that have returned to YouTube and Facebook haven't waited long enough for the companies to prove that the underlying issues were fixed.
Boycotts may be mostly intended for a boycotting brand to save face.
To be sure, some ad boycotts seem to have produced results, though such instances are rare. Last year, more than 50 brands pulled their ads from “The O'Reilly Factor” on Fox News amid sexual-harassment allegations against the show's host, Bill O'Reilly. Mr. O'Reilly denied the allegations but left the network, whose owner, 21st Century Fox, issued a statement saying that “after a thorough and careful review of the allegations” he wouldn't return.
Brands that advertise online often aren't aware of where their ads will appear because of the vagaries of automated — or programmatic — ad buying. Advertisers often find out that their ads have appeared next to seemingly unsavory content when they are targeted on social media.
Sleeping Giants, for instance, is an anonymous Twitter and Facebook campaign that calls out brands whose ads appear on Breitbart, the conservative news site. The intention of the campaign, says one of its founders, is to encourage advertisers to develop their own internal set of principles regarding ad placement.
A spokesman for Breitbart says, “The Sleeping Giants boycott effort is a business harassment campaign intended to limit Breitbart's news platform for partisan political purposes through defamatory claims and intimidation.”
Regarding the boycotts against the Hannity and Ingraham shows, a spokeswoman for Fox News says, “We cannot and will not allow voices to be censored by agenda-driven intimidation efforts.”
While corporations once rarely bowed to public pressure from consumers, that has changed over the past decade or so as our political climate has become more polarized, says Daniel Korschun, an associate professor of marketing at Drexel University's LeBow College of Business. Because many consumers now use politics to define themselves, Mr. Korschun says, they expect a company's values to align with their own—and that extends to the platforms on which a company runs its advertising.
For instance, JPMorgan Chase & Co. earlier this year developed its own tool to ensure that its ads on YouTube won't appear next to objectionable material.
But brand-safety issues will continue to dog advertisers, experts say, as cultural mores shift — and because it is difficult to perfect the technology that is used to eliminate objectionable pairings.
Larry Chiagouris, a professor of marketing at Pace University's Lubin School of Business, predicts that ad boycotts will multiply, and as they do, it will be harder for consumers to keep track of them — allowing advertisers to return to platforms like Facebook and YouTube after having boycotted them.
Says Prof. Chiagouris, “Advertisers know that time heals all wounds.”
BY MATTHEW KASSEL