Pharmas' Facebook 'Stop Hate' ad boycott: One year later, it's back to business as usual, ad tracker says

Facebook summer boycotts last year resulted in some changes, but the brands involved, including high-profile pharma companies, are back to normal spends, one ad tracker finds. (alexsl/iStock Unreleased)

Last summer, many pharma companies joined the crush of brands ditching Facebook ads to press the platform to make changes to stop hate speech. Pfizer, AbbVie and Novartis were among the more than 1,000 brands that joined the “Stop Hate” campaign and halted ads in June and July.

Now, however, like many of those brands, pharmas are back to typical advertising on Facebook, according to data compiled for Fierce Pharma from Pathmatics' digital ad tracking and analytics.

During the main boycott month of July 2020, for instance, GlaxoSmithKline abruptly curbed spending on Facebook to $244,000 but was back up to $3.7 million in July 2021, according to Pathmatics. Merck & Co. similarly spent just $177,000 last July but increased that to $2.7 million during the same time period this year.

Pfizer showed one of the bigger swings year over year, spending just $20,000 in July 2020 after it joined the boycott to $6.1 million in July 2021.

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“Overall, pharma brands seemed to follow a similar pattern as many other companies who stopped spending for a month (or two or three) and then slowly resumed their normal patterns,” Sarah Fleishman, director of marketing at Pathmatics, said in an email.

Novartis restarted paid content in August 2020 on Facebook and Instagram to provide patients with disease awareness, scientific innovation and clinical trial recruitment information, it said in a statement to Fierce Pharma.

"We continue to engage with Facebook on their policies to help ensure we are doing what’s best for physicians and patients," Novartis said, adding it "remain(s) committed to organizations working to end systemic racism."

AbbVie and Pfizer were not immediately available to comment.

For some pharma companies, advertising overall on Facebook this year is not only back to normal but bumped up significantly.

Pfizer, AbbVie and Eli Lilly's monthly spends on Facebook are peaking higher monthly in 2021 than for any month in 2020, Fleishman said. While she doesn’t see any “blanket reason” for the increase, she did point out that gains may be specific to each companies’ strategy—such as Lilly’s increase as part of its Olympic sponsorship and advertising around the Games.

“The boycotts made a difference in the short term, in that they got both Facebook's attention and the attention of consumers. But in the long term, it seems that most brands went back to business as usual, and Facebook wasn't forced to make any significant changes,” Fleishman said.

RELATED: Pfizer, Novartis and more halt July ads on Facebook to protest hate and racism

A report by the organizers of the Stop Hate campaign one year after the boycott found some “incremental improvements” at Facebook but agreed that the necessary “bold structural change” did not happen.

Some of the biggest changes actually occurred on other social media platforms, which, while not targeted in the July Facebook boycott, made changes anyway to avoid future targeting, the organizers said.

Last fall, Pfizer told Fierce Pharma that it had resumed advertising but continued to talk to Facebook about changes and monitor progress with regular updates, adding it would "take additional steps if Facebook fails to deliver on their equity commitments.”

Editor's note: The story was updated with comments from Novartis.