On June 30th, Couch Guitar Straps received a warning from a potential customer. The man wanted to buy a new guitar strap, but he was upset that Couch was running Facebook ads at a time when a growing number of companies — including Eddie Bauer, Magnolia Pictures, Patagonia, and Ben & Jerry’s — were suspending advertising on the platform to protest the way it handles (or fails to handle) hate speech. The customer emailed Couch founder Daniel Perkins to express his concerns.
The gist of the message was “I want to give you the chance to join the boycott, and I’ll make my purchase,” Perkins recalls. “I immediately sent a letter back: ‘You’re right, we get it.’ Two days into July, I went to my Facebook dashboard and postponed all the ads.”
More than 1,000 companies like Couch have joined the Facebook boycott, known as Stop Hate for Profit, and pledged to temporarily pause advertising spending on Facebook and its other social media properties such as Instagram. The Stop Hate for Profit website accuses Facebook of “allow[ing] incitement to violence against protesters fighting for racial justice in America” and “turn[ing] a blind eye to blatant voter suppression on their platform.” Prominent civil rights groups support the ad boycott; earlier this month, Derrick Johnson, chief executive of the NAACP, said that Facebook either “lack[s] this cultural sensitivity to understand that their platform is actually being used to cause harm, or they understand the harm that the platform is causing and they have chosen to take the profit as opposed to protecting the people.”
While Couch is hardly alone in joining the ad boycott, the company’s willingness to participate makes it an outlier in the music industry, which has barely acknowledged Stop Hate for Profit’s efforts. Universal Music Group, Sony Music, Warner Music Group, Spotify, and TikTok — some of the biggest companies in music — all continued to spend money on both Facebook and Instagram in June and July, according to the data company Pathmatics, which tracks advertising spending. Many of the major distribution companies and prominent independent players are also conspicuously absent from the Stop Hate for Profit website.
These companies’ refusal or inability to participate in the boycott — some have complex licensing agreements with Facebook — suggests the extent to which they rely on social media platforms to reach fickle listeners. But the major music companies’ silence is especially noticeable since nearly all of them have made public statements in favor of — and in some cases, large financial pledges to — social-justice causes following the killing of George Floyd. The music business appears willing to release carefully worded statements of support and offer cash grants, but it is less interested in using advertising muscle to attempt to force positive change.
In a statement, a Universal Music Group spokesperson said the concerns raised by the Stop Hate for Profit campaign “are serious and important issues, and we recognize and respect our artists’ varying personal viewpoints regarding their choice of social media platforms by which they connect with their fans. Of course, we will continue to support our artists’ requests regarding advertising placement.
“At their core, these issues are really about platform accountability – they’re about having the platforms effectively enforce their own community standards and refine their policies and practices to better address the goals of those standards in an evolving social media world,” the spokesperson continued. “We will continue to monitor recently announced measures to improve adherence to those standards and will work to ensure these platforms are operating in artists’ best interest.”
Sony Music and Warner Music Group declined to comment on their ad practices. Spotify and TikTok did not respond to requests for comment.
“Their algorithms have learned what content is stickiest, and it’s often stuff that makes us outraged: conspiracy theories and dangerous fake news” – Above and Beyond’s Tony McGuinness
Concerns over Facebook’s policies around hate speech and misinformation have been growing steadily since at least the 2016 presidential election. The movement to influence the platform’s policy via an advertisement boycott — advertising accounts for more than 98 percent of Facebook’s revenue — started to gain momentum in early June after the platform allowed President Trump to post statements that were misleading or promoted violence. Stop Hate for Profit has grown to include a large number of companies from a variety of fields, including Verizon, Ford, Unilever, Pfizer, and Adidas.
The boycott supporters in the music industry are mostly independent labels: Ninja Tune, Anjunabeats, Cooking Vinyl, and Epitaph Records have all joined the movement. So have a few other music businesses, including Couch, Gruhn Guitars, Milwaukee studio National Recording LLC, and the Kronos Quartet, the only musicians whose names appear on Stop Hate for Profit’s website.
“The sad truth about Facebook and other social media sites is that their algorithms have learned what content is stickiest, and it’s often stuff that makes us outraged: conspiracy theories and dangerous fake news,” says Tony McGuinness of the long-running electronic group Above and Beyond, which runs Anjunabeats. “It’s having a very negative effect on all of us.”
“While it’s impossible to measure the many positive ways social media is shaping humanity, it does feel like occasionally it reflects and amplifies positions we abhor” – Ninja Tune
Eric Newell, president of Gruhn Guitars, offers a similar reason for supporting Stop Hate for Profit. “Facebook has refused to fully address the spread of hate speech through its services,” he says. “Our customers are our first priority, and we do not want to financially support an institution that propagates hate and allows for the harassment of any group.”
The electronic label Ninja Tune added that, “while it’s impossible to measure the many positive ways social media is shaping humanity, it does feel like occasionally it reflects and amplifies positions we abhor. It felt important to join the campaign to protest against that.”
In response, a Facebook spokesperson noted that “we invest billions of dollars each year to keep our community safe and continuously work with outside experts to review and update our policies. We know we have more work to do, and we’ll continue to work with civil rights groups, the Global Alliance for Responsible Media (GARM), and other experts to develop even more tools, technology and policies to continue this fight.”
The small size of the music companies that chose to pause Facebook advertising means that they don’t spend that much on the platform in the first place. In contrast, Pathmatics’ data show that Spotify spends millions on Facebook and Instagram advertising. While the streaming platform’s ad buys dipped in the first few months of the pandemic, according to Pathmatics, the company ramped up spending in June to more than $4 million — just as the boycott gathered steam. Pathmatics’ data indicate that Spotify spent over $2 million on Facebook and Instagram ads in July.
“We are the poster child of someone who could effectively have a say if there were a lot of us joined together” – Couch CEO Daniel Perkins
Universal and Sony spend less than Spotify on Facebook ads. But while the levels of spending vary across the companies, both have spent more on Facebook and Instagram advertising in July, when the boycott is in full swing, than they did in June, according to Pathmatics. Figures from Pathmatics also show that Warner’s spending dipped slightly but continued in July, while TikTok trimmed its ad buys on Facebook and Instagram but did not eliminate spending completely.
Even though Couch’s ad budget cannot rival that of a major corporation, Perkins hopes his decision to withhold spending will still have an impact. “From what I read, it’s not the large advertisers that make up the bulk of [Facebook’s] profit — it’s companies just like us,” he notes. “We are the poster child of someone who could effectively have a say if there were a lot of us joined together.”
Still, an accountant focused on the bottom line — is there any other kind? — might have advised Couch against joining the boycott. “We’re a micro-targeted company, so Facebook is one of the few places we can advertise,” Perkins says. “They probably account for a quarter of our sales. And if we miss a sale, someone might not have a job.”
Sure enough, when Couch paused its Facebook ad campaign, sales immediately took a hit. But while suspending ads hurt — and brought heat from trolls on the internet citing freedom of speech — Perkins still describes his decision as “a pretty easy choice.”
“People who are spreading overt disinformation or hate messages can connect easily” on Facebook, he says. “What are you actually doing about it?”