When Media Advertising Boycotts Backfire

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Sleeping Giants is far from a household name, but the small organization has had an outsize impact in the Trump era. After being dismayed by the result of the 2016 election, Sleeping Giants was founded by two advertising industry veterans, Matt Rivitz and Nandini Jammi, to organize boycotts of conservative news organizations via social media campaigns.

Though the group has a small social media following – 254,000 Twitter followers, which isn’t a lot in relative terms – it has succeeded in getting at least 20 major advertisers to abandon Tucker Carlson’s program on Fox News, and by some estimates it’s responsible for reducing the ad revenue at Breitbart.com by 90%. (In the interest of disclosure, my wife is a contributor to Fox News.)

Now, however, it seems that Sleeping Giants’ boycott campaigns, and others like it, are resulting in an unintended – but predictable -- consequences. In the Internet era, advertisers have the luxury of being incredibly specific about what content they choose to advertise on. They do this by targeting content with “keywords” that identify news or content they want their ads to appear next to, or alternately identify content they don’t want to be associated with. And increasingly, advertisers are shying away from placement in any stories with controversial keywords, even when it means avoiding the biggest news of the day.   

“As keyword blacklisting ‘coronavirus’ continues to decimate the news industry, I have had the sinking feeling that Sleeping Giants (a campaign which I co-run) has something to do with it,” Jammi wrote in the advertising industry newsletter Branded. “When Sleeping Giants started tweeting at companies asking them to take their ads off Breitbart, we thought we made it pretty clear why: Breitbart was a media outlet promoting hate speech and bigotry, and advertisers’ dollars were funding it. What we never imagined was that brands would turn off the tap on all ‘NEWS & CURRENT EVENTS’ too.”

Aside from “coronavirus,” Jammi lists some other keywords and phrases advertisers are blacklisting: shootings, plane crashes, raising the minimum wage, Trump, lesbians, trans people, blood, and murder. According to an article in The Guardian earlier this year, advertiser “blacklists are ballooning in some cases to as many as 3,000 or 4,000 words, blocking ads from many different stories,” and extensive keyword blacklists cost publications in the U.K. over $210 million in ad revenue last year. 

Advertisers avoiding all controversial topics may well be devastating to journalism, an industry long beset by financial difficulties. What’s astonishing is that the co-founder of Sleeping Giants would be so clueless that she “never imagined” this would be the outcome of media boycotts.

Over a year ago, I wrote about Sleeping Giants and concluded that “boycotts are bad for a culture of free speech, but the biggest problem might be that they establish a baseline where corporate policies define the terms of political debate.” And that point was obvious long before I made it.

Sleeping Giants’ efforts at advertiser boycotts were successful not because corporate America endorsed the overtly progressive policing of discourse Sleeping Giants so often engages in. (Though it is safe to assume corporate boardrooms are more liberal than not these days.) Mostly, corporations are very risk-averse when it comes to advertising, a field where they have lots of options. A few hundred tweets from Sleeping Giants’ social media devotees is hardly representative of broadly shared outrage – but that’s all it took for major corporate brands to pull their ads off of Fox News.

If anyone should have been aware that establishing a low tolerance for controversy for advertisers could backfire, it’s Sleeping Giants. But it seems that Jammi diagnosed the problem too late. “In response, the ad tech world decided that hate speech was ‘controversial,’” she writes. “If brands don’t want to be on controversial content, they reasoned, they wouldn’t want to be on a lot of other things, either. So they came up with an answer: brands should stay away from all hard news, negative news, breaking news — anything remotely ‘controversial.’” 

The obvious tell is in the first sentence. Arguing that corporations shouldn’t give money to support speech that is, in your opinion, harmful, is one thing. But when Jammi labels disagreeable content “hate speech,” she’s suggesting it has no right to be published in the first place – and such hyperbole makes opinions seem more controversial than they actually are. Sleeping Giants’ goal was never eliminating hate speech. It’s silencing conservative outlets such as Breitbart and Fox News and putting them out of business altogether.

And not just those two. It’s also clear that not a single conservative news outlet meets Sleeping Giants’ approval when it comes to acceptable discourse. In response to the growing advertiser blacklists that Sleeping Giants now frets it is responsible for, Jammi has released a “whitelist” – a spreadsheet of 51 media outlets that it says are safe to advertise on. 

The list is mostly comprised of major newspapers and media organizations familiar to most Americans. Although liberal publications such as The Atlantic, Vox.com, and The New Yorker are on the list, not a single conservative media organization makes the cut. Even the Wall Street Journal, the largest circulating newspaper in the country, with a rigorous and independent news operation, was left off the whitelist – presumably because of the paper’s conservative editorial pages.

By using such exclusionary tactics, Sleeping Giants and their progressive allies have inadvertently tapped into an Internet phenomenon known as “the Streisand effect” – essentially, attempts to censor end up further publicizing the person or information being censored. Republican voters have argued for decades, and with some merit, that the media and other institutions are biased against them. Things are now so polarized that liberal attacks on conservative news sources now practically serve as an endorsement.

Further, whatever problems conservative media outlets such as Breitbart and Fox allegedly have, they are a small segment of the news market. They can also be judged against the major media outlets’ behavior in the Trump era – and there’s hardly a clear distinction over who is more politicized or irresponsible.

The New Yorker is on Sleeping Giants’ whitelist, yet its reporting during Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s controversial confirmation process was deeply unethical. Why is Tucker Carlson persona non grata for advocating tougher immigration policies, while Rachel Maddow, who spent years turning her show into a clearinghouse for every wild and now debunked Trump-Russia allegation, gets the green light to have luxury car brands spend lots of money on her show?

Conservative journalism has problems of its own, but given how overwhelmingly liberal the media is, it often serves as a useful outside corrective to dominant media narratives – and these days the media is more prone to politicized groupthink than ever. If you want an accurate representation of what’s happening in this country, you ignore voices like Fox’s media critic Howard Kurtz or the Wall Street Journal op-ed pages at your peril – both of which Sleeping Giants would probably like to see starved of advertising revenue.

Instead, we’d be better off ignoring scolds and censors such as Sleeping Giants who, by their own admission, are wrecking the news business.

Mark Hemingway is a writer in Alexandria, Va. You can follow him on twitter @heminator.



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