Richard Allen Smith
Richard Allen Smith is a writer and communications strategist living in Washington, D.C.
By Richard Allen Smith | Dec 05, 2016
Progressives upset about the West Wing’s increasingly racist and xenophobic tilt may have found an unexpected ally: corporate America.
In recent days, the Kellogg Comany became the latest of several corporations to pull its ads from Breitbart News Network, a far-right news site that has served as a platform for white nationalists. The site’s former CEO is senior Donald Trump adviser Steve Bannon.
Kellogg routinely “takes steps to ensure our ads do not appear on sides that aren’t aligned with our values as a company,” a Kellogg spokeswoman told Bloomberg.
Score one more for “Sleeping Giants,” an improbable grassroots Twitter campaign whose organizers hide their identities behind the anonymous account @slpng_giants.
The point is to get companies to blacklist their online ads from Breitbart. So far, in addition to Kellogg, the companies pulling ads include Warby Parker, Nest, Allstate, and ModCloth. Contacted via Twitter, a @splng_giants organizer who declined to be named said the campaign’s goal is to ensure companies know what they are funding when they advertise at Breitbart.
“We believe in free speech, that should be made absolutely clear,” the organizer wrote via Twitter, “But we also believe in transparency. And companies need to be aware of who they are seen with and where they are seen.”
The “Sleeping Giants” effort is one of several grassroots campaigns that have set out to pressure or shame corporations via such social media platforms as Facebook and Twitter, often successfully. As early as 2011, a @DumpDTrump Twitter campaign to punish Trump for his racist remarks against President Obama led Pepsi and other companies to pull advertising from The Apprentice.
“Ultimately, you have to ask, what is it that a company cares about,” says Asher Huey, a Washington, D.C.-based digital strategist who helped lead the @DumpDTrump effort. “Ultimately, it's reputation and the bottom line. If those two things are in jeopardy, then it's in their best interest to react.”
Alesa Mackool a digital consultant who has worked on campaigns targeting major banks and corporations, agrees: “We've seen huge companies like Google, GE, and Expedia leave ALEC, the right-wing model legislation mill, after being challenged.”
The view is similar from the corporate side. “Most companies want to do the right thing by the public and by their customers,” says Brandon Friedman, CEO of the McPherson Square Group, a “digital-first” public relations firm with Fortune 500 clients. “Most C-suite folks are extraordinarily sensitive to what’s being said about them, despite what you might see or hear publicly.”
The Trump administration could be uniquely vulnerable to such pressure campaigns. With business interests in at least 20 countries, including hotels and resorts used for meetings and conferences, the Trump Organization also generates significant revenue through licensing the Trump name to other corporations, which could themselves be subject to public pressure.
Trump family members serving as the president-elect’s close advisers are similarly vulnerable. Ivanka Trump’s lines of jewelry and apparel have already been targeted by a #GrabYourWallet consumer boycott campaign (@slpng_giants cites #GrabYourWallet as a model.) Ivanka Trump’s husband, Jared Kushner, owns a media company dependent on advertising, as well as real-estate interests whose tenants, including REI and New York University, could come under public pressure.
Activist and NBA Hall-of-Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is already calling for public pressure boycotts of Trump and his funders.
But such boycotts may or may not be effective against Trump, says Beth Becker, of Becker Digital Strategies, who has advised several organizations on successful public pressure campaigns. “A company has to care about what the public thinks of them,” Becker notes. But with Trump, public criticism just seems to make him want to double down.
Nevertheless, MoveOn.org’s Washington Director Ben Wickler says Trump-focused pressure campaigns have strategic merit. If consumer boycotts distract Trump from his disastrous policies, for example, progressives will cheer. When Macy’s dropped Trump’s clothing line in 2015 under pressure from MoveOn and other groups, Wickler notes, Trump squandered time attacking Macy’s instead of discussing campaign issues.
“If he wants to enact his horrible agenda, he has to focus and line up votes in Congress,” Wickler says. “Trump’s obsession with his net worth and brand creates a target-rich environment to get him to pull his eyes off the ball.”