In 2017, Nandini Jammi helped launch a company called Sleeping Giants to pressure corporate advertisers into boycotting conservative media. With little more than a Twitter account, a Facebook group and a gift for incendiary rhetoric, the company reportedly prompted a range of corporations, from Pfizer to Walmart, to pull advertising from Fox News and other right-leaning outlets.
Now, with boycotts becoming a fixed tactic, including secondary boycotts targeting states with new Republican-backed voting laws, Jammi has transitioned from aggressor to protector: advising companies on how to avoid becoming targets. Her new enterprise, “Check My Ads,” says it provides “brand safety training that empowers marketers to protect their brands … We help you identify where your ad dollars are going and to align your media buy with your values.”
Jammi is part of what some see as a sensible evolution in which corporations behave in a socially responsible manner while shoring up their businesses against market disruptions in a bewildering time of cultural conflict. But critics see the shift as a pure protection racket: a growing field of progressive groups and personalities exploiting cancel culture for both political gain and personal profit.
Disney, under its “Stories Matter” initiative, has convened a council of nearly a dozen such groups to advise its executives and content managers in monthly videoconferences on how to handle racially insensitive material from its vast archive.
Academic and author Ibram X. Kendi and other leading proponents of Marxist-inspired “critical race theory,” have received millions of dollars from corporations looking to stay in the good graces of progressive activists. Such check-writing echoes what’s long been seen in academia, as, for example, when Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey personally donated $10 million to Kendi’s “Center for Antiracist Research” at Boston University, and Purdue University paid “whiteness studies” scholar Robin DiAngelo $7,000 for a two-hour virtual event.
In the business world, the political pressure and corporate defensiveness have no shortage of critics. Dan Granger, CEO of Oxford Road, an ad agency that launched Hulu, Lyft, Dollar Shave Club and other notable brands, faults the approach of left-wing media monitors like Media Matters and Sleeping Giants as partisan and “all stick, no carrot.”
“And I think that they’re making the problem of polarization in this country worse, whether or not there is merit behind the claims that they make,” he adds.
With many consumers opposed to corporations becoming political, some companies are starting to push back against the woke agenda. The CEO of the software company Basecamp recently announced it would no longer push political messaging on customers, prompting a number of resignations among employees. Even Disney, home of amusement parks billed as the “happiest place on Earth,” has become deeply politicized over the company’s embrace of racial politics, City Journal reported last week, drawing on a trove of whistleblower documents.
But many major corporations seem increasingly willing to be goaded by activists to participate in boycotts.
Last year, after Sleeping Giants, the NAACP, Color Of Change and other left-leaning advocacy groups urged a boycott of Facebook ads, over 1,000 companies, including Verizon and Coca-Cola, joined the effort. The boycott campaign came shortly after CEO Mark Zuckerberg defended the social media company’s decision not to censor posts from President Trump criticizing the violent riots sweeping the country in response to the police killing of George Floyd. Later the president would find himself banished from the platform entirely.
“Advertising boycotts can be very effective,” says Sharyl Attkisson, a former investigative reporter for CBS News who is now a Sinclair Broadcasting correspondent and media critic. “We’ve seen where the news has become an almost entirely managed commodity, that the special interests and propagandists have successfully been able to co-opt in the past 15, 20 years—and particularly using the internet in the past four to five years in a way that that has not been done before.
“I think we’re in an information war and people want to be sure to control what others say and think and do,” she adds.
In that information war, woke corporate consulting is a more recent tactic. Jammi, a 32-year-old graduate of the University of Maryland business school, sells her “Check My Ads” service under the rubric of “values,” but seems to equate ethics with partisan politics. Last year, Jammi released a “whitelist”—a spreadsheet of 51 media outlets she deemed safe to advertise on. The list is composed of liberal publications, such as The Atlantic, Vox.com, and The New Yorker. Not a single conservative news organization made the cut—not even the Wall Street Journal, the newspaper with the largest print circulation in the country, and a well-regarded independent news operation, complemented by its influential conservative editorial pages.
So far, Check My Ads hasn’t publicly touted its work with any major corporate clients, though one of Jammi’s newsletters last year discussed advising the CEO of an ecommerce company, Headphones.com, to make sure he didn’t advertise with outlets she found politically untenable.
Jammi did not respond to a request for comment.
The Business of Boycotts
Boycotts are not a new phenomenon, but political and technological changes have recast them, giving them more immediacy and a sharper edge. Decades ago, serious boycott threats were often the domain of the religious right; starting in the 1990s, the Southern Baptist Convention encouraged a years-long boycott of Disney over the company’s stance on homosexuality. Some issue-oriented organizations, such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, often urged boycotts of large organizations to draw attention to their causes.
Jammi and Sleeping Giants reflect how boycotts are increasingly used by the left to pressure targets to accept, if not actively promote, controversial progressive views and policies related to everything from transgenderism to defunding the police. Social media technology has empowered such progressive boycott efforts, by making it easy for consumers to communicate directly with companies and brands. Any perceived misstep by a company can become a national news story by the mere fact the issue is trending on social media.
Social media also allows activists to identify and target companies whose business models offend them. Julián Villanueva, a professor who teaches digital marketing at IESE Business School in Spain, has written that the website ethicalconsumer.org often targets mammoth companies for specific practices. “The site contains a list of initiatives to persuade ‘ethical consumers’ to stop purchasing from brands like Air France for shipping monkeys to laboratories; Amazon, for avoiding taxes; Bluefin Tuna, for fishing endangered species; or Caterpillar, for selling bulldozers to Israel, as these will be used to destroy Palestinian houses,” Villanueva wrote in Forbes last year. “All of these are accusations that might have to be proven, but that many people believe instantly.”
Villanueva wrote that the intensity of the current boycotts makes it hard for most brands to emerge unscathed. He cited the popular footwear brand TOMS, whose business model was to reinvest the profits from selling its wares to wealthy Westerners to provide shoes to the world’s poor. To this day, the company pledges one-third of its profits to global relief efforts.
However, a popular app and website, “Good on You,” which rates brands on their response to environmental and social issues, designated TOMS as “Not Good Enough.” It said “TOMS’ environment rating is ‘very poor’ [because] it does not publish sufficient relevant information about its environmental policies. … Its labor rating is ‘not good enough’ [because] there is no evidence it has worker empowerment initiatives such as collective bargaining or rights to make a complaint.”
Good on You makes money by driving traffic to specific retailers and partnering with certain clothing brands to promote them. Its economic incentives, and how those incentives might shape its approach to rating other companies, aren’t transparent. Good on You also offers undisclosed “marketing and data services” to brands that partner with it. Both Good on You and TOMS declined to comment on the fairness of Good on You’s ratings.
Villanueva faults the self-described consumer watchdogs and boycott activists for their lack of transparency. “Some of these organizations, maybe they are blackmailing somehow,” he said. “[They say] ‘You are on this bad list, and maybe you want to be off this list. So hire my consulting activities now.’ There has to be more scrutiny and education at the consumer level and society at large.”
Destroying the News Industry
When their efforts began hurting favored outlets, boycott advocates including Nandini Jammi belatedly expressed worry that they were inadvertently hurting the ad-dependent news industry by creating a climate of fear among corporations and their agents that prompts them to preemptively steer ads away from any news content that might be perceived as controversial.
Online advertising is often placed by automated systems, giving companies little control over where their copy might appear. Concerned that they might suffer a backlash if their ads simply appear next to content that might be deemed controversial, companies employ “keyword blacklists” to avoid such ad placement. Terms such as “shootings,” “plane crashes,” “raising the minimum wage,” “Trump,” “Lesbians,” and “blood” are red flags. The Guardian reported in January of last year that keyword blacklists are “ballooning in some cases to as many as 3,000 or 4,000 words, blocking ads from many different stories.”
For the news industry, the financial impact of blocking ads alongside “controversial” content turns out to be staggering. Soon after the Guardian’s January 2020 report, advertisers started adding “coronavirus,” “COVID,” and “virus” to their keyword blacklists. According to a report from Merrick School of Business at the University of Baltimore, stories about the coronavirus pandemic accounted for one-third of all page views for news websites between February 2020 and June 2020. The report concluded during that same five-month period, keyword blacklisting on stories about the coronavirus pandemic cost publications $1.3 billion in lost ad revenue.
Since stalwart liberal outlets such as CBS News, the Boston Globe and Vox were adversely impacted, Jammi realized that her boycott efforts might be harming favored entities.
“As keyword blacklisting ‘coronavirus’ continues to decimate the news industry, I have had the sinking feeling that Sleeping Giants (a campaign which I co-run) has something to do with it,” Jammi wrote last April, before leaving in an acrimonious split with her co-founder.
“When Sleeping Giants started tweeting at companies asking them to take their ads off Breitbart,” she continued, “we thought we made it pretty clear why: Breitbart was a media outlet promoting hate speech and bigotry, and advertisers’ dollars were funding it. What we never imagined was that brands would turn off the tap on all ‘NEWS & CURRENT EVENTS’ too.”
Large traditional companies like the bank Capitol One would not just pull their advertisements from right-leaning outlets like Fox News, but all cable news networks.
In that April newsletter Jammi also complained about the rise of “brand safety” services whose pitch she described as: “You don’t want a campaign like Sleeping Giants to get you in trouble? Then buy our stuff”—for protection.
In other words, Jammi, whose own “Check My Ads” business is dedicated to telling companies where to advertise in order to avoid controversy, is upset that other advertising companies are offering the same advisory services. However, these new services aren’t motivated by political activism—they’re trying to protect companies from getting caught up in the toxic advertising environment Jammi helped create.
Oxford Road CEO Granger warns that the businesses that continually respond to short-term panics about “brand safety” run the risk of creating bigger and more lasting damage if they aren’t careful. The more business cedes to boycott pressure, the more consumers will start to think companies are obligated to influence what media report. Granger notes this is a problem for business, because the media is a far more polarizing and less credible institution.
“According to the Edelman Trust Barometer that came out this year, business is the only institution that is seen as both competent and trustworthy,” Granger said in an interview with RealClearInvestigations. “Government is not seen as competent or trustworthy and the media is not seen as competent or trustworthy. And the dirty little secret is that business pays for media. It is business that is trusted, which is sponsoring media, which is untrusted.”
Granger says he’s having a tough time getting advertisers to think about the long-term implications of weighing in on a never-ending series of social media-driven controversies. Once powerful arguments are less effective, including appeals to free speech rights and analytics showing that there’s no lasting harm from ignoring social media-driven boycotts driven by small groups of activists. That’s because the calls to respond to ad boycotts are starting to come from politically motivated employees.
“When it is employees of the company who are concerned that the company they signed on for is not adhering to the value system that they purport to have, and they feel that there’s hypocrisy there, that’s when things really start to change,” says Granger. The polarization has so firmly taken hold in both the media and business that Granger has founded an organization called Media Roundtable. The organization offers resources to help advertisers and media take up approaches “different than keyword blocking, public shaming, and reactive boycotts that drive people further apart” and are instead “based on proactive, direct, and collaborative engagement between brands, creators, networks, and platforms. We aim to shift the incentive structure away from supporting outrage, accusation, and vilification and toward media that fosters truth and civility in journalism.” Granger also hosts a Media Roundtable podcast where he discusses the tensions between media and business with guests across the political spectrum.
Despite growing recognition that the lack of civility and good-faith understanding is breaking the advertising business and hurting media revenue, the boycott tactics are escalating. The NAACP recently wrote a letter to the NFL asking the league not to strike a broadcast deal with the Fox TV network over corporate ties to Fox News. Politicians too are getting in on the act.
Two Democratic members of Congress have sent letters to the presidents of Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, Cox, Dish, and other cable and satellite companies suggesting they should stop carrying Fox News and upstart conservative cable networks such as Newsmax or pressure them to change their coverage—egged on in part by outlets such as CNN.
Granger warns that the media climate could still get much uglier than it is now. “I’ve gotten in multiple debates about the value of some of these third parties and the one-sidedness of the accountability measures that are being applied,” he says. “Now, just wait a few years and watch for a right-wing version [of the boycotts]. There have been attempts, but they haven’t been well executed, but when that happens, then it’s just mutually assured destruction. I don’t think that’s a winning strategy for anyone.”