When Social Media Becomes the Message

On Nov. 23, U.K. cosmetics firm Lush said it was deactivating its Instagram, Facebook, TikTok and Snapchat accounts until the social media environment “is a little safer.” And by a “safer” environment, the company didn’t mean for advertisers, but for consumers. Jack Constantine, chief digital officer and product inventor at Lush, explains in an interview with the BBC:

“[Social media channels] do need to start listening to the reality of how they’re impacting people’s mental health and the damage that they’re causing through their craving for the algorithm to be able to constantly generate content regardless of whether it’s good for the users or not.”

This was not an easy decision for Lush. It came with the possibility of a substantial cost to its business, “We already know that there is potential damage of £10m in sales and we need to be able to gain that back,” said Constantine. “We’ve got a year to try to get that back, and let’s hope we can do that.”

In effect, Lush is rolling the dice on a bet based on the unpredictable network effects of social media. Would the potential loss to its bottom line be offset by the brand uptick it would receive by being true to its core values? In talking about Lush’s move on the Wharton Business Daily podcast, marketing lecturer Annie Wilson pointed out the issues in play here:

“There could be positive effects on short-term loyalty and brand engagement, but it will be interesting to see the long-term effect on acquiring new consumers in the future.”

I’m not trying to minimize Lush’s decision here by categorizing it as a marketing ploy. The company has been very transparent about how hard it’s been to drop — even temporarily — Facebook and its other properties from the Lush marketing mix. The brand had previously closed several of its UK social media accounts, but eventually found itself “back on the channels, despite the best intentions.”

You can’t overstate how fundamental a decision this is for a profit-driven business. But I’m afraid Lush is probably an outlier. The brand is built on making healthy choices. Lush eventually decided it had to stay true to that mission even if it hurts the bottom line.

Other businesses are far from wearing their hearts on their sleeves to the same extent as Lush. For every Lush that’s out there, there are thousands that continue to feed their budgets to Facebook and its properties, even though they fundamentally disagree with the tactics of the channel.

There has been pushback against these tactics before. In July of 2020, 1000 advertisers joined the #StopHateForProfit Boycott against Facebook. That sounds impressive – until you realize that Facebook has 9 million clients. The boycotters represented just over .01% of all advertisers. Even with the support of other advertisers who didn’t join the boycott but still scaled back their ad spend, it only had a fleeting effect on Facebook’s bottom line. Almost all the advertisers eventually returned after the boycott.

As The New York Times reported at the time, the damage wasn’t so much to Facebook’s pocketbook as to its reputation. Stephen Hahn-Griffiths, the executive vice president of the public opinion analysis company RepTrak, wrote in a follow-up post,

“What could really hurt Facebook is the long-term effect of its perceived reputation and the association with being viewed as a publisher of ‘hate speech’ and other inappropriate content.”

Of course, that was all before the emergence of a certain Facebook data engineer by the name of Frances Haugen. The whistleblower released thousands of internal documents to the Wall Street Journal this past fall. It went public in September of this year in a series called “The Facebook Files.” If we had any doubt about the culpability of Zuckerberg et al, this pretty much laid that to rest.

Predictably, after the story broke, Facebook made some halfhearted attempts to clean up its act by introducing new parental controls on Instagram and Facebook. This follows the typical Facebook handbook for dealing with emerging shit storms: do the least amount possible, while talking about it as much as possible. It’s a tactic known as “purpose-washing.”

The question is, if this is all you do after a mountain of evidence points to you being truly awful, how sincere are you about doing the right thing? This puts Facebook in the same category as Big Tobacco, and that’s pretty crappy company to be in.

Lush’s decision to quit Facebook also pinpoints an interesting dilemma for advertisers: What happens when an advertising platform that has been effective in attracting new customers becomes so toxic that it damages your brand just by being on it? What happens when, as Marshall McLuhan famously said, the medium becomes the message?

Facebook is not alone with this issue. With the systematic dismantling of objective journalism, almost every news medium now carries its own message. This is certainly true for channels like Fox News. By supporting these platforms with advertising, advertisers are putting a stamp of approval on those respective editorial biases and — in Fox’s case — the deliberate spreading of misinformation that has been shown to have a negative social cost.

All this points to a toxic cycle becoming more commonplace in ad-supported media: The drive to attract and effectively target an audience leads a medium to embrace questionable ethical practices. These practices then taint the platform itself, leading to it potentially becoming brand-toxic. The advertisers then must choose between reaching an available audience that can expand its business, or avoiding the toxicity of the platform. The challenge for the brand then becomes a contest to see how long it can hold its nose while it continues to maximize sales and profits.

For Lush, the scent of Facebook’s bullshit finally grew too much to bear — at least for now.

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