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Over the last five months, there’s been a steadfast movement to boycott stores that carry Trump family products. Amid the visible — and effective — #GrabYourWallet campaign, there’s been another type of advocacy rumbling, this one targeting companies for where they advertise.
An anonymous group of activists who call themselves Sleeping Giants have been working since November to get brands to stop advertising on Breitbart, a conservative publication that’s the news source of choice for fans of Donald Trump and the so-called alt-right.
Sleeping Giants’s mission is to stop “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic and anti-Semitic news sites.” Almost 1,400 companies, including Nordstrom, Etsy, Warby Parker, Henri Bendel, Lululemon, Teva, Uniqlo, Sephora, Zappos, and the Honest Company, have stopped advertising on Breitbart.
Surprised that Breitbart was a partner of Jessica Alba’s personal care and beauty brand or yoga favorite Lululemon in the first place? Well, it’s not technically. Online advertising is far more complicated than one company (say, a fashion brand) cutting a check to another company (say, a news site) for the privilege of running an ad. Companies often place ads through third-party advertisers like AppNexus or RocketFuel, which buy programmatic ads that are run by bots, not directly by humans.
As Joshua Zeitz, who works at AppNexus, told the New York Times, clicking on a link results with “a call go[ing] out, and algorithms and automated software bid in an auction to put their advertisement up on your page.” Thanks to such algorithms, these ads can follow you around the internet — that’s why that Kate Spade dress and those Gucci shoes are still all over your screen after you’ve moved on from them. Even though these targeted ads can cost very little, they add up to a billion-dollar market.
Sleeping Giants has spent months reaching out to companies who have ads on Breitbart, many of which were completely unaware they were on the alt-right website to begin with.
“Oftentimes, these companies will enlist media buying agencies to find them slots for ads on the internet through an algorithm, and the problem with programatic advertising is that companies don’t know where they are ending up,” one founder tells Racked.
Sleeping Giants was started a few weeks after the election by a group of friends, some of whom are in the digital marketing space, and the group has expanded since. The representative Racked spoke with — who wouldn’t reveal his identity, citing that the group as a whole is retaining anonymity — says they got together over the concern that “there's this site with incredible influence that's masquerading as news; some of it is definitely news, but some of it is also inflammatory and incendiary that targets specific groups.”
“So many companies are inadvertently paying Breitbart for their ads, and they often don’t even want to have an advertisement on the site because it will hurt their company’s image,” he adds.
There are a number of ways for companies to opt out of third-party advertising placements. There are specific filters that can be turned on, for example, so ads don’t end up on websites that sell things like guns, liquor, or porn. Third-party companies can also flip the switch; AppNexus, for example, has since removed Breitbart from its advertising plans. But Sleeping Giants is advocating that companies specifically blacklist Breitbart from their media buys. And thanks to customer backlash and a major Twitter campaign, thousands of companies have done so (Sleeping Giants is keeping an ongoing list).
Some companies, like Etsy, have opted out, but would not provide a statement on the decision to Racked. Others, like Nordstrom, have been more vocal.
“This website didn’t align with our parameters,” a spokesperson from Nordstrom tells Racked over email. “We have parameters in place to prevent our online ads from appearing on certain websites or next to certain types of content.”
A Warby Parker spokesperson also tells Racked that it is “actively blocking our ads from appearing on Breitbart News Network.”
“As a company, we are committed to building a diverse and inclusive community that treats everyone with respect and dignity, and it's important to us that our advertisements appear on sites that believe in those same values,” says the Warby Parker spokesperson.
While many will see the cause of Sleeping Giants as a political move — Breitbart is a key publication of choice for Trump supporters, and was even the former employer of White House chief strategist Steve Bannon — the rep from the advocacy group says it has nothing to do with politics.
“This is about hate, not politics,” he says. “It’s an anti-bigotry campaign, pure and simple.”
While Sleeping Giants has been pretty successful with its cause, there are some companies that it can’t seem to crack — most notably, Amazon.
“It’s pretty unbelievable that we’ve been doing this for three months and Amazon has been completely tone deaf,” the Sleeping Giants rep says, adding that the e-commerce giant isn’t budging even after a report that Amazon employees were furious at their employer’s silence. A petition for Amazon to stop advertising on Breitbart has well over 500,000 signatures, but there’s still no movement on Amazon’s end.
While it’s unclear if Amazon will eventually crack under all of the pressure — the tweets keep rolling — it’s fair to assume the campaign to take down Breitbart’s profit channels is just getting started. Most recently, SumofUs, a consumer watchdog group, has been putting pressure on e-commerce business Shopify to stop powering Breitbart’s merchandise company. Yesterday, it delivered a petition with nearly 200,000 signatures to Shopify’s Ottawa offices. Tobias Lütke, CEO of the Canada-based company, has already defended the decision to keep working with Breitbart, taking to Medium last month to explain that Shopify was supporting free speech.
“Commerce is a powerful, underestimated form of expression. We use it to cast a vote with every product we buy. It’s a direct expression of democracy. This is why our mission at Shopify is to protect that form of expression and make it better for everyone, not just for those we agree with,” Lütke wrote. “We don’t like Breitbart, but products are speech and we are pro free speech. This means protecting the right of organizations to use our platform even if they are unpopular or if we disagree with their premise, as long as they are within the law.”
But activists likely won’t be giving up any time soon — not on Shopify, and certainly not on Amazon.
“Corporate responsibility is paramount right now,” says the Sleeping Giants rep. “Not doing anything about this, at this time, just seems irresponsible.”