Advertisers Boycotts – Think Before You Jump

An ugly phenomenon has been spreading widely in the last few years. Small groups linked to the DNC, or even being far left from it, declared boycotts of conservative speakers, journalists, or publications, and demanded advertisers to sever ties with them.  And many advertisers have been glad to oblige. 

Recently, an insolent pup called to boycott Laura Ingraham, a Fox News personality:  “Soooo @IngrahamAngle what are your biggest advertisers …“.  That youngster is a victim of a mass schooling under the Obama regime, and such behavior might have been expected.  But advertising executives are mature men and women that should recall the times when threats and attempts to silence the opponent in a political debate were unacceptable.  Make America Great Again means that these norms of debate are coming back, among others. 

This boycott is just a small example. Media Matters and few other slimy groups run many boycott campaigns. The most notorious one is probably the Sleeping Giants (@slpng_giants on Twitter) that started as a supposedly anonymous account on Twitter and launched the boycott of Breitbart.  This account has been heavily promoted by the fake-stream media in articles not marked as advertising. It has the coveted “verified badge,” almost 40,000 tweets, and 141,000 followers at this time. Nevertheless, the media has been calling this account anonymous and refusing to tell the readers who is behind it.  The New York Times articles from December 2, 2016 (1) and March 26, 2017 (2) are examples.  The same newspaper later disclosed the name of a covert CIA operative, and defended this action: Why We Published the Name of a Covert C.I.A. Official (3). 

Tactics of these groups usually involve making noise on social media and placing advertorials in the fake-stream media, recruiting activists and urging individuals to contact advertisers with demands to severe ties with the targeted individual or publication.  If you’re an advertiser suddenly deluged by tweets or emails telling horrible things about an individual or a publication with which you advertise, and asking you to pull your ads, keep in mind the following things: 

  • This is an organized astroturfing campaign. Those who had contacted you do not represent your customers or the public. Many of them are professional or semi-professional activists, who send hundreds of tweets or emails.  Others are ordinary people, who had been triggered by massive propaganda campaigns and who would forget about you in few hours. 
  • Don’t believe what they tell you. Media Matters and similar groups are well known liars, and those who act on their propaganda stretch their lies even further.  They can say absolutely anything.  If you consider to obey their demands, do your own research, considering context and background. 
  • Do you research about the boycott organizers and promoters as well.  This is a bit harder, because they frequently use front groups, or hide behind anonymity.  Nevertheless, you must find out who they are, and what their intentions are.  Sometimes they act in cahoots with foreign political entities, attempting to interfere in the US elections.  Legality of many actions completely depends on the intent.  If you are an officer in a large and sophisticated corporation, a court might attribute real intents of the boycott mongers to you. 
  • If you avoid advertising in strongly conservative publication, or stop advertising with the targets of boycotts, you offend not only half of the population that had voted for Trump, but also three quarters of those who voted for Hillary, but still believe in political dialogue and free debate.  It’s a silent majority.  The silent majority will not delude you with emails or tweets.  They will not even immediately stop buying your products.  They are patient, tolerant, and forgiving — within limits. But they can and will fight back when attacked. As the saying goes: beware of the wrath of a patient man! 

If you decide to yield to the pressure, do that quietly, then restore your relations with the targeted individual or publication as soon as possible.  Nevertheless, yielding even temporarily is a bad policy.  The boycotts monger will enter you into the database of pushovers, and the normal people will be less willing to defend you the next time. 

You (or a low-level ad buyer making decision on behalf of your company) might be tempted to embrace a boycott because of the sympathy to its alleged cause.  Check whether the alleged cause is the real one.  In an unlikely case it is, think again about the cause.  Good causes and the Media Matters rarely go together.   

If you are an executive in a large publicly traded corporation, and still want to proceed with the boycott, consider the legal matters.  One of them is a fiduciary responsibility to your shareholders.  You can punish Trump supporters with your own money, but not with the money of your shareholders. Then, not all boycotts are created equal.  

A boycott is a legitimate weapon of ordinary people against large corporations, no other way around.  The laws do not encourage latter to boycott political speakers, to put it mildly.  The same laws that were used against tobacco corporations apply to you, but even tobacco companies did not boycott publications they did not like.  Some judge might consider such a boycott to be an illegal combination in violation of 15 U.S. Code § 2, punishable by up to 10 years in prison.  There are many other potentially applicable federal and state laws, so consult your lawyer.  MAGA means that the law is the law again.  No free passes for Obama friends anymore. 

Of course, some speakers, publications, and content are despicable, amoral, harmful, or evil.  Avoiding them or pulling your advertising when you are alerted about their nature is the right thing to do, both ethically and financially.  But such cases are conspicuously missing in the current crop of boycotts.  These boycotts are attempts to silence an inconvenient conservative opponent with lies, threats, and hysteria.  If you advertise in liberal publications, but not in conservative ones, you might want to document the reasons for such decision, and then think how convincing these reasons will be to a jury of our peers.  As advertising professionals, you are expected to recognize well-rehearsed and coordinated outrage, even when it is professionally expressed in the media, emails and tweets.  Ignore it.  On the other hand, if the campaigners threaten or harass you, or interfere with your business relations, the law is on your side.  There are usually deep pockets behind the campaigners, and when you are ready and willing to go after them, they might have reasons to settle quickly.  Even Twitter is neither innocent nor legally invulnerable. 

Foreign corporations, both for and non-profit are on notice that using their advertising with political intent in the US is against the law, and might be considered foreign election interference, a criminal offence. Both Unilever and the “Internet Research Agency” (the infamous Saint-Petersburg troll farm) have the same legal status: foreign commercial entities with the substantial connections to governments of countries where they are located.  One difference is the scale – Unilever spends a million times more money than IRA.  Another one is accountability – indictments against Russian citizens in Russia are laughing stock, another proof that Robert Mueller is a crooked outlaw, attempting a sedition to undo the people’s vote.  If Unilever or its executives are indicted, they would have to defend themselves in the court of law. 

If your customers are Berkeley students or other radicals, ignore the advice in this article.  But if your customers are as politically diverse as good Americans are, but you spend most of your advertising budget on the media that would vote for Bernie Sanders / Keith Ellison, you are already in a hole and might consider making amends.  My recommendations for where you need to advertise (ordered by the audience size): 

Advertising on these websites is not only the right thing to do, but also a wise investment with an excellent ROI.