In November 2016, an anonymous social media account called Sleeping Giants began an unusual campaign: tweeting at brands whose ads were appearing on Breitbart.
Each tweet featured a screenshot of the ad sitting next to headlines like “Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy” and “Political Correctness Protects Muslim Rape Culture” and carried a variation of the same message: ‘Hey, do you know your ad is supporting racism and bigotry online?”
On Nov. 30th, a few weeks into the campaign, Kellogg’s announced that they would be blacklisting Breitbart from their ad buy. It was a tipping point for both brands and social media savvy consumers alike.
Our campaign snowballed virtually overnight as hundreds, then thousands of followers joined us. Tweeting screenshots is easy — and obviously, no brand wants to be caught alongside racist, misogynist or white supremacist rhetoric.
— Sleeping Giants (@slpng_giants) December 8, 2016
Today, with the support of 300,000 Giants, our members across Twitter and Facebook, we have been able to confirm over 4000 advertisers that have blacklisted Breitbart. (Our official Confirmed List is public.)
Our results are tangible: Breitbart has lost 90% of its advertisers.
Without calling for a single boycott, our campaign has become one of the most effective examples of modern consumer activism. And as we’ve grown, we’ve jumped in to hold advertisers responsible beyond Breitbart.
Our campaign successfully led the advertiser exodus from The O’Reilly Factor as a result of Bill O’Reilly’s history of sexual harassment. We also led the call for major social platforms like Twitter and YouTube to enforce their Terms of service on conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and his show, Infowars, which the vast majority finally did in July of 2018.
With these unique, crowd-sourced initiatives, Sleeping Giants has ushered in a new era of brand safety that businesses can’t ignore.
Our campaign uncovered a scandal of epic proportions in the advertising world: that Google AdSense and Facebook Audience Network were programmatically serving their ads on sites with racist, misogynist or white supremacist rhetoric by default.
That programmatic ads are deeply tied to the underground world of extremism has come as a surprise to nearly everyone, including marketers.
Most marketing teams have discovered their problematic ad placements through disappointed customers taking part in our social media campaigns.
Workable, a HR recruitment software company, for example, learned through a Sleeping Giants tweet their ad was sitting above a Breitbart headline “There’s No Hiring Bias Against Women in Tech, They Just Suck At Interviews.”
For some, the discovery has made international headlines.
In March 2017, the British government learned that ads placed by several of its agencies – using taxpayer money – were appearing alongside (and therefore, funding) extremists and hate preachers on YouTube.
In the meantime, customers have started to connect the dots. If ads are appearing on violent or extremist content, that means that company’s ad budget is funneling money to these hateful or unacceptable websites.
It has been clear from the start of our effort that most marketers have been in the dark about where their ads end up when they opt in to programmatic advertising networks like Google and Facebook Audience Network.
For this reason, we don’t call for boycotts. We’re an awareness campaign. We present you with the information. You make the final call.
Brand safety is a lot harder in 2019
Sleeping Giants has validated how savvy and sophisticated consumers have become about the flow of corporate ad dollars.
Our campaign has either led or played a pivotal role in the following results:
- Bill O’Reilly lost his show over his history of sexual harassment
- Renaissance Tech CEO and racist financier Robert Mercer was forced to step down after clients were made aware of Mercer financing Breitbart, Steve Bannon, Milo Yiannopoulous and Cambridge Analytica
- Laura Ingraham lost over half her advertisers after mocking David Hogg, a Parkland shooting survivor for not getting into college and multiple references to “demographic changes”, parroting white supremacist talking points.
- Milo Yiannopolous lost his book deal with Simon & Schuster after his pro-pedophilia comments surfaced online
- Alex Jones was deplatformed by Apple, Facebook, Twitter, Spotify, YouTube
Our campaign was started as, and remains to be, an effort to make bigotry and sexism less profitable – and that means we’re now watching a lot more than just ads.
Brand safety has been totally redefined by consumers. Your usage policies, partnerships and even political campaign contributions are now in play too.
What you need to do next
In 2019, businesses need to look more broadly than just ad and media buy to keep their brands safe.
Got a Diversity page on your website? How about Corporate Social Responsibility? If you have values and initiatives like these at your company, it’s the perfect place to start your own review and document where your company stands on real-life issues.
The following five areas landed companies in hot water this year. Do you know where your business would stand?
Acceptable use policies
How will your business respond to bad actors using your platform or service? Who gets to be your customer?
- Disqus, the comment hosting service, has continued to host violent hate speech in Breitbart’s comments section despite its anti-harassment policy.
- Payment processing service Stripe is processing online payments for violent white supremacist groups.
- Shopify is hosting Breitbart’s online store despite its anti-hate speech policy.
Clients and client Projects
Who will you contract with or perform services for? What is and isn’t it OK to profit from?
- Salesforce, Microsoft and Accenture came under fire from both the public and their own employees for enabling family separation on the U.S. border through multi-million dollar contracts with Customs & Border Protection.
- United and Delta had to answer for their role in flying asylum-seeking children away from their parents.
Who and what will you align and associate yourself with?
- Delta, Enterprise and Hertz all dropped their partner discount for National Rifle Association members following the Parkland High School student-led #BoycottNRA campaign.
Who and what will you invest your money into? Where will those funds be funneled?
- Michigan State University found itself under fire for investing its endowment funds with Renaissance Technologies and therefore contributing to Robert Mercer’s shadowy anti-democratic efforts.
Political campaign contributions
What people or policies will your campaign contribution money support?
- Walmart, Pfizer and Major League Baseball were among the businesses called out for donating to Mississippi State Senator Cindy Hyde Smith and Iowa Congressman Steve King, both of whom have a long history of racist and white supremacist rhetoric.
It’s ultimately up to your business – not us – to decide what the right decisions are for your brand. These are tough questions, but in the age of social media, they come at you fast.
Now is the time to take stock of what your customers value and come up with clear, consistent policies that protect your brand’s value. You don’t want to be scrambling when customers come knocking on your door. It’s worth being prepared.