When Hollywood Sat Out The Facebook Ad Boycott

The absence of participation was…notable, but did it matter?

There was a relatively widespread movement in July where a number of big companies signed on to take part in an organized boycott of Facebook advertising, pulling their paid ads in protest of the company’s handling (or lack thereof) of hate speech and other incendiary material. The Stop Hate for Profit campaign, made up of a number of activist and community organizations, eventually encompassed some 1,000 brands and companies including Target, Microsoft, Volkswagon and others and was intended to last all month.

Conspicuously absent from the campaign were, with the exception of Magnolia Pictures, Hollywood studios, though Disney did suspend its advertising of both Disney+ and Hulu.

While it certainly is worth noting that the studios appear to have sat out the boycott and therefore gave the impression of not fully supporting the ends it strove for, it’s also worth putting the timing of the boycott in the context of the massive upheavals rocking the entertainment industry.

The movies released in July weren’t exactly comparable to those from the same period of 2019, or any year in recent memory. Those that did come out – at least those of any note – largely did so either via streaming services, PVOD or had distribution that relied on drive-in theaters or the small number of screens still operating in states where they were allowed to do so. Expected/anticipated titles like Mulan and Tenet were either pushed back or shunted to PVOD, meaning chains including AMC Theaters, Regal Cinemas and others delayed their own reopening plans.

All that leads to the simple question: Which ads were studios supposed to be pulling?

It’s not that some of the streaming or PVOD titles, in addition to those that were still on the schedule to come out in August, weren’t running campaigns. Many were, and some of those almost certainly ran on Facebook. At the very least, studios continued to feed the Facebook maw with posts on brand pages, movie-specific pages or both. Without excusing the general lack of participation in what would have been at least the making of a statement, it’s not like there was a massive amount of advertising that would have been pulled given the very unusual circumstances that make up 2020.

Add to that the findings that “making a statement” was about all that was accomplished. Recent reports have concluded that while some companies have taken the opportunity to reevaluate their Facebook advertising and extend the boycott, the effort had a negligible impact on the social network’s revenue. Whatever that impact was, it seems to have been offset by increased spending by small and mid-sized companies as they were desperate to reach people amid continued pandemic-related disruptions.

With the timing of the boycott making Hollywood’s participation minimal at best and other realities turning it into a statement more than a debilitating protest, it’s little wonder that many consumer respondents to a recent survey want to see that boycott extended. Making it a long-lasting effort would at least increase the odds that Facebook feels a bit of pain and has to substantively revisit its policies around hate speech, which seem to have as many exceptions as there are rules.

There’s also the fact that, with the end-times level decimation of local media and the current (albeit highly questionable) ban on doing business with TikTok, advertisers find themselves more reliant on the duopoly of Facebook and Google than they have been in a while. Most major studios, along with the rest of the entertainment industry, have found TikTok to be an important platform for reaching younger and influential audiences.

Once theaters reopen in sufficient numbers, or when there are big titles like Bill and Ted Face The Music and others to promote, it’s likely studios will ramp back up to similar ad-buying levels seen pre-pandemic. To what extent will depend on the specifics of each title and the demographic being appealed to. Whatever the case, I wouldn’t expect any sort of boycott or reconsideration to last long if there are movies to sell.