More than 500 advertisers are giving up on Facebook this month in an effort to get the world's largest social media network to take action. Big names like Unilever, Ford, and Verizon have paused ads on the platform as a part of the #stophateforprofit campaign to force Facebook to do more to moderate racist, incendiary, and hateful content on its platform.
Facebook's initial response to the boycott was lacking, to say the least. The company said it would label some types of content from political leaders. That drew additional criticism from groups like the Anti-Defamation League, one of the organizers of the boycott.
Facebook's CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, also reportedly told employees that he believes that advertisers "will be back on the platform soon enough." That belief reflects two truths: The first is that advertising on Facebook is effective. That's true for big brands, but it's an even bigger deal for small businesses that depend on Facebook's massive audience to find customers.
There are few other platforms where a small business can target exactly which customers they are trying to reach, especially with 2.5 billion users. That makes it an extremely appealing advertising tool, and makes it extremely difficult to give up--even for a short time.
The other truth is that Zuckerberg doesn't seem to really understand what a big deal this is for brands. Zuckerberg, in that same meeting, is reported to have told employees that Facebook isn't going to "change our policies or approach on anything because of a threat to a small percent of our revenue, or to any percent of our revenue."
Verizon's CEO, Hans Vestberg, on the other hand, made it clear that it is a big deal, while saying out loud what we all already knew.
"Everything we do around our brand is super important, where we show up, etc.," Vestberg said in an interview with CNBC. "What happened was that certain things on Facebook that were appearing next to our content were not compliant with our standard agreements with Facebook. So we decided to pause and work with them to see how we can avoid this in the future."
Verizon doesn't want its name showing up in your News Feed next to a post promoting violence against protesters, for example. Neither, by the way, should you.
What Mark Zuckerberg seems to be counting on is that the lure of such a powerful advertising product will be too much for businesses to resist in the long term. That's understandable considering that the boycott so far hasn't made any real impact on Facebook's bottom line. If it can weather the bad press, it can definitely weather the relatively minor loss of revenue.
The bigger question is for small businesses. Can your brand weather associating with content you have no control over?
That doesn't mean, by the way, that I'm in favor of Facebook censoring content. Let's be clear, that would be a bad thing, despite the fact that Facebook can absolutely do what it wishes in terms of the guidelines it creates around acceptable content. I'm just not sure we all want Mark Zuckerberg sitting in a room deciding what should or, more important, should not be on Facebook.
Businesses are faced with a dilemma when advertising on platforms like Facebook. To be honest, any time you build a part of your business on someone else's platform, you do so at your own risk since the way they operate that platform could contradict your values.
The question is, what do you do when that happens? Verizon--and other brands--are being forced to deal with that very real question. For now that means reconsidering whether advertising on social media is worth it.
"We try to work with our partners that we're using for advertising," said Vestberg. "But, again, for us, we're very sensitive to our brand values and our brand standards."
That, by the way, is a powerful lesson for every company. Including yours.