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Is Facebook Too Big for Fashion Brands to Boycott?

As the call to cancel paid advertising on the social media’s various platforms reaches a tipping point, small to mid-size fashion brands must evaluate where they draw the line between their values and sales.
Fashion brands are reckoning with Facebook's influence | Source: Shutterstock
  • Alexandra Mondalek

NEW YORK, United States — Like other fashion brands, Eileen Fisher has included Facebook Inc. in its marketing strategy, relying on the world's largest social media platform — which includes Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp — to help sell its anti-trend essentials.

But the sustainably focused label is now considering the ethics around advertising on Facebook in the first place. It’s the most recent apparel brand to join the #StopHateforProfit campaign, a protest against Facebook’s history of allowing disinformation and incitement of violence on its platform, its organisers allege.

“As a purpose-driven company, it is vital to live by our core values. Now more than ever, it's important to stand up against hateful and racist rhetoric,” designer Eileen Fisher told BoF in an email. “At Eileen Fisher, we believe in the influence that comes with using our collective company voice to help right this wrong — which is why we chose to participate in #stophateforprofit.”

Over the last week, apparel brands including REI, The North Face, Patagonia, Arc’teryx and Eddie Bauer have pledged to boycott Facebook Inc. by pulling their advertisements for the month of July on the each of the company’s properties, following the call to action that six organisations including the NAACP and the Anti-Defamation League initiated. According to the pledge guidelines, brands can continue to post organically on Facebook’s namesake platform as well as Instagram, but no paid advertising is permitted. Procter & Gamble, which owns brands like SK-II and Pantene, is currently reviewing its advertising spend on all platforms, to ensure its content does not appear next to “hateful, denigrating or discriminatory” content, according to P&G Chief Brand Officer Marc Pritchard, who spoke during the virtual Cannes Lions Live event on Wednesday.

“In the wake of George Floyd’s murder by police and the protests that followed, Facebook yet again proved their commitment to putting profit over people and ignored their own policies around allowing content that incited violence,” Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, told BoF in an email. “During the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Facebook chose to decrease the number of human content moderators who monitor hateful content on the platform. Those human moderators who remain have not been focused on hate.” The Anti-Defamation League says they have not heard from Facebook since launching the campaign last week. Facebook did not respond to BoF’s request for comment.

Those human moderators who remain have not been focused on hate.

The decision to flee Facebook and Instagram, even for a month, is not so easy for fashion brands that rely on direct e-commerce sales to fuel their business. Though brands have become more emboldened (often encouraged by their customers) to make politically minded public declarations about their businesses, doing so in the middle of a global pandemic adds a layer of tension to an already-stressed retail environment. Since March, the coronavirus outbreak has killed hundreds of thousands of people in the United States alone and brought global economies to a halt.

The ripple effects have extended into consumer spending, leaving fashion brands and other non-essentials producers scrapping for every sale. Many of those sales are generated on Facebook itself, which has become a cost-efficient sales driver for direct-to-consumer brands that could not rely on wholesale partners or in-store retail over the last several months. (Before the pandemic, advertising on Facebook and Instagram was prohibitively expensive for brands with limited budgets; But by April, the pandemic had led to a decreased demand in ad purchases on the platform, driving the price down to below $3 per thousand impressions or cost per mille, the industry-standard metric, for the first time in several years, according to Gupta Media. At the same time, consumers were spending more time online, making ad purchases on the platform incredibly cost-effective.)

“The Stop Hate for Profit campaign presents brands with an incredibly delicate situation to manage,” said Joe Yakuel, founder and chief of marketing firm Within, which specialises in bridging the gap between brand and performance marketing goals. “Many brands support the effort to affect change in how Facebook is addressing the abuse of its platform, but Facebook is an essential driver of revenue and a month of going dark could cascade into more financial challenges for brands already at risk due to the impacts of COVID-19.”

Since the 2016 election, consumers have initiated brand boycotts, among the most notable is the Grab Your Wallet campaign, which has grown to become an umbrella boycott against brands and companies that support the Trump administration. But for brands, taking a stance against their own business partners — in this case platforms which allow them to sell products to consumers — becomes trickier.

Facebook is an essential driver of revenue and a month of going dark could cascade into more financial challenges for brands.

In 2017, the American alt-right media site Breitbart lost 90 percent of its advertisers in two months after the internet activist group Sleeping Giants initiated the call to action. Though public pressure has mounted on social media platforms including YouTube and Facebook for their role in proliferating hate speech and disinformation, they have so far dodged widespread financial consequences for doing so.

In fact, Facebook has nearly eight million advertisers on its platform that spend about $6 billion monthly, and is projected to surpass its competitors in the online advertising space. Facebook's US digital ad revenues are expected to increase nearly five percent to more than $31 billion, led by growth on its fashion-prefered entity Instagram, according to data from Emarketer. Meanwhile, Google’s net advertising revenue is expected to drop for the first time in 2020, according to the data, allowing Facebook's share of the digital ad market to grow to nearly a quarter.

The apparel brands that have publicly pledged to boycott Facebook for the month of July have other channels through which they can sell their products, especially as parts of the world reopen to in-store retail, through their wholesale partners — most of which have not signed the pledge — or directly in their own stores. (Patagonia told BoF it is “prepared to extend the boycott if there isn’t meaningful action from Facebook.”) But for smaller brands without the same scale, Facebook — and Instagram, where much of fashion’s influencer marketing ecosystem lives — may be too big to boycott.

“At the end of the day, [Facebook] is still the largest platform in terms of users, and it is going to be hard [to boycott,]” said Toni Box, vice president of social at brand marketing agency ForwardPMX. “It's also one of the highest revenue generators in terms of social platforms, so at the end of the day, it's definitely going to be harder for brands to completely abandon the platform as long as their users are there and those users are buying, especially for a smaller to medium-sized brand that maybe doesn’t have the larger brand footprint, the retail store locations and the wholesalers to be able to lean on.”

Despite the challenges, there are real opportunities for brands considering taking a stand against the tech behemoth. Deepening relationships with consumers who have come to expect and reward brand activism presents one way to earn a long term win. According to a survey of 7,000 consumers conducted in May by the Capgemini Research Institute, 78 percent believe brands have a larger role to play in society and 74 percent feel they can do more to help.

Now more than ever, it's important to stand up against hateful and racist rhetoric.

Additionally, pledging to the boycott offers brands the chance to diversify their digital marketing strategies in ways that make them more competitive against digital native brands, Box said. Digital brands tend to be more nimble and willing to experiment on emerging platforms like TikTok, which has yet to prove itself in terms of driving conversions, but offers a new level of awareness.

Brands that do not boycott Facebook in July are less likely to be singled out than they would have been on Blackout Tuesday — an initiative organised within the music industry to mute non-Black causes and communications on June 2 in order to amplify attention towards the Black Lives Matter movement — where they would have “stuck out like a sore thumb, potentially threatening a brand's reputation,” Yakuel said.

That said, advertising agencies and brand marketing firms alike are recommending that clients that do participate in the boycott use their platforms to make a statement about the campaign, despite the relative indent it may or may not make on Facebook’s balance sheet.

“If a brand is going to join the Stop Hate for Profit campaign, we recommend they turn it into an opportunity to continue the important conversation taking place across the country so that this business risk isn't being taken on without a purpose in mind (other than a fear of backlash),” said Yakuel. “Beyond making a public statement, we also recommend that brands electing to join the campaign engage with their customers and partners at Facebook to ensure that we all come out of this month with a better understanding of the steps the platform needs to take to better support the needs of the community.”

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