Since the 2016 presidential election, more than 1,400 companies — and counting — have yanked their advertising from the right-wing website Breitbart News, where President Donald Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, was formerly the editor-in-chief.
The ad removals are the result of consumer backlash spearheaded by the Sleeping Giants, an anonymous collective of progressive activists who organize their protests on social media. The group has been urging people to blitz corporations with wake-up calls about the message the corporations are sending when they advertise on Breitbart, which is known for incendiary content that is frequently unsourced, false, and/or deliberately distorted.
The Sleeping Giants claims to be “an organization dedicated to stopping racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic and anti-Semitic news sites by stopping their ad dollars.” And its campaign has been working: The movement recently made headlines after the global ad network Omnicom confirmed the existence of an internal memo advising staff to pull ads from Breitbart on its clients’ behalf.
So far, the 1,400-plus advertisers that have withdrawn their ads from the site, typically through third-party ad networks, include such brands as Nordstrom, Zappos, Lululemon, and Etsy, as well as international corporations including Allstate, Mercedes-Benz, Hewlett-Packard, and BP.
The Sleeping Giants’ successful campaign against Breitbart fits a larger pattern of citizens pressuring tech and corporate culture to take a stand of active resistance against Trump and his administration. But the collective notes that it also fits an even longer, bipartisan pattern of taking a stand against hate speech.
The Sleeping Giants’ anti-ad campaign stresses activism through social media
A spokesperson for the Sleeping Giants — who wouldn’t reveal his or her name, because the group as a whole is trying to remain anonymous — told Vox the collective was formed after the election, by several people who were “really shocked to see that [Breitbart’s] content, disguised as real news, was so inflammatory.” So they decided to target the site (which publicly revealed its owners for the first time on February 24) by way of the advertising dollars that support it.
Most ad networks buy placements for their clients on an array of websites based on a wide variety of desired demographic categories — for example, if you’re a company that wants to sells organic cotton shoes to affluent women, the ad network you hire might place your ads on websites like the Gwyneth Paltrow–fronted lifestyle site Goop. Often, the ad networks’ clients have no idea which specific websites their ads have appeared on, unless they request a list of URLs from the network. It’s perfectly likely that many of the companies the Sleeping Giants collective is targeting have no idea their ads have ever appeared on Breitbart.
The Sleeping Giants’ approach is simple: Ask people to take a screenshot of any company’s ad on Breitbart, then tweet or email it to the company to inform them that their ads are appearing on Breitbart via their ad network.
The Sleeping Giants spokesperson said the process of contacting advertisers seemed to suggest itself:
It just seemed really simple to send a screenshot to a company showing the ads next to these incendiary articles to show them what that association looked like. Most of them, especially early on, were very surprised to see themselves there. It was a really simple thing and very easy to do.
Several media outlets have suggested that the Sleeping Giants’ tactics had been lifted from those used by Gamergate in 2014, when anti-feminist gamers temporarily convinced several corporations to pull their advertising from certain media outlets the gamers believed were antagonistic to their sexist movement. But the Sleeping Giants spokesperson told Vox the similarities are purely coincidental.
Regardless, the Sleeping Giants have sparked a movement, gaining more than 67,000 followers on Twitter. The group’s spokesperson noted that the onus has fallen on “the companies that support [Breitbart], however inadvertently,” to take a stand in response to the hateful content Sleeping Giants believe the website propagates. “Corporate responsibility has to take center stage now.”
This idea seems to be an increasingly common one among anti-Trump activists, as they look for any and all avenues to combat a controversial administration.
The Sleeping Giants’ anti-ad protest is part of a growing trend of social media campaigns encouraging corporations to resist President Trump
Resistance to the Trump administration has resulted in multiple politicized campaigns against corporations that are perceived to have connections to the administration. Such campaigns include the consumer-driven push to #DeleteUber, which in February led Uber CEO Travis Kalanick to resign from Trump’s economic advisory council. Another recent movement is the #GrabYourWallet campaign to boycott corporations that do business with the Trump family.
The Sleeping Giants’ current advertising campaign against the website follows a social media campaign organized by a number of consumer activist groups, including the Giants, to pressure the online commerce site Shopify into dropping Breitbart’s online store as a client. Via its Shopify store, Breitbart sells products that mock the Clinton family and that celebrate building a wall on the US-Mexico border, as well as a “border patrol” T-shirt described as “a tough-looking tee that just might make an illegal alien turn around and head home,” and seems intended to subtly intimidate and mislead undocumented immigrants.
In early February, Shopify CEO Tobias Lütke issued a defense of his company’s decision to conduct business with Breitbart, arguing that Shopify was choosing to support free speech. Lütke’s response was widely criticized, including internally at the company, by those who feel the real issue is not that Breitbart’s content is in danger of being stifled, but that its content amounts to hate speech.
The Sleeping Giants spokesperson told Vox that the Shopify campaign — which, according to Motherboard, began with an online petition by the activist nonprofit SumOfUs — served to galvanize the Sleeping Giants in their mission:
The frustration was really born out of [Shopify’s] CEO's reaction to our notifications. The open letter he published really didn't wash. Free speech is great and necessary. Hate speech is an entirely different thing altogether. When whole groups are being intentionally targeted by a website, we don't think companies need to support it with ad dollars or profit from it. Shopify, by continuing to help Breitbart sell merchandise and taking a percentage of the profits, is doing just that.
The urge to hold companies accountable reflects what Wired recently called a push within the tech industry to "take a side.” But lest you assume the “sides” in questions are Democrat versus Republican, it’s important to note that the Sleeping Giants view Breitbart primarily as a purveyor of bigotry and hate speech; its partisan leanings are irrelevant.
“This is an anti-bigotry campaign, not a political one,” the group’s spokesperson told Vox. “We don't think anyone needs to choose between hatred and tolerance. It's a pretty simple choice for most people and companies. That's why this campaign has had some success. We're not going after one party or another.”