Opinion: Advocacy Advertising as A Corporate Political Strategy in the Age of Increasing Government Scrutiny

Tech companies, digital campaign and why it matters

Most of us use the internet quite often. Take for example social media, who in past years has transformed from only being use as a way to share photos and videos of your pets, loved ones and that one time you actually cook something to being a marketplace where everyone from giant corporations to independent sellers could market their products, to a news source where you catch up with everything going on in the world from juicy celebrity gossips to important real world news such as development of the current pandemic and new prospected national or municipal legislation. In this writing I will mainly be talking about a new-but-not really use of social media, which is its use as a means for political persuasion by corporate entities, in particular tech companies. I will bring forth two cases, which is California’s Proposition 22 about rideshare drivers and the News Media Bargaining Code in Australia.

But beforehand just to preface this, both of the case that I will be using as examples are notably multi-layered and this writing is not going to comment on the main issue that the those cases brought up (i.e. labor rights in gig economy and digital companies-news outlets relations, consecutively), because they honestly deserve a separate writing. Rather, it will be focusing on the medium of persuasion that the companies involved employed, which is some form of a large scale social media and/or generally digital-based campaign to influence public opinion.

Case I: Rideshare companies on California Prop 22

In last year’s US election, the people in California not only voted for their future president and other state representatives, but also 12 other state propositions. The proposition that will be the focus of this writing is Proposition 22 (“App-Based Drivers as Contractors and Labor Policies Initiative”), which would decide the employment status of ride-share companies’ workers on whether they are classified as independent contractors and the labor and wage policies correlated with the status¹. The proposition stirs some debate as it would greatly impact the livelihood Californian app-based driver and served as a point of reference of how the newly evolving gig economy is transforming both employers-employee relations and the subsequent policies and rights that goes along with it.

Fast forward to November 3rd 2020 when the votes have been counted, it was declared that the controversial proposition has passed with landslide win of 58–41², much to the rejoice of many rideshare giants, such as Uber, Lyft and Doordash, who has been a strong proponents of passing Proposition 22. What is interesting though is the insights garnered from data after its passing. Data suggested that rideshare companies reportedly spent almost $200 millions in both digital ads in various social media platforms from YouTube to Facebook and in-app pop-up messages promoting their “Yes on 22” campaign³ ⁴.

Case II: Google vs, Australia

On 9th December 2020 the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC) introduced a new bill titled Treasury Laws Amendment (News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code) Bill 2020 to the Australian Parliament⁵. The code is claimed to serve as a reaction to the said-to-be uneven playing field between the tech giant and local news company by “forcing” Google and Facebook to compensate news outlets for content linked to or featured on their respective platforms⁶. The legislation as expected has received pushback from the tech giant that stated that if passed it would drastically impacted Google’s operations for Australian and would “break the way Google Search works”⁷.

To advocate for itself, Google has launched a campaign under “#AFairCode”, with videos and posts on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms. It has also published an open letter to the Australian citizens via blog posts. Beyond that, reportedly when you opened Google in Australia it would showcase a yellow notification (see picture below) warning about the situation that is undergoing. Most notably, Google also announced that if the law were passed the company threatens to pull its services from Australia¹¹.

Source: The Verge

Why this matters

These two cases are admittedly quite different from each other, not only in terms of the topic at hand but also the nature of the policy discussed. Whereas Prop 22 was included in the general election and was determined by a majority vote among the people, Australia’s news media bargaining code will be decided by Parliament of Australia. But the issue stands as both have major overlap in terms of using some form of digital-based campaign to advocate their view on a certain policy. On the basis of that similarity, and the fact that the end-goal is to sway public opinion with the hope of passing a legislation, I am classifying this as an example of using digital campaigns as part of a corporate political strategy, in particular a form of advocacy advertising. Here I will be using Kelley (1982) and Sethi (1987 ) definition as stated in Lord (2000)⁸,

“Advocacy advertising typically consists of indirect attempts to shape legislative decision making by influencing broader public opinion, usually through corporate-sponsored print and broadcast advertisements that advocate particular policy views (Kelley, 1982; Sethi, 1987)” — Lord (2000).

The elements that make up these cases are not in fact unique. The use of social media for political purposes has been widely used, most commonly in political campaigns for presidential or municipal elections, or even in some cases a way for politicians to “chimed in” their thought in political discussions and/or justifying their stance to sway public opinions, with notable example include Trump’s Tweetplomacy. Corporate involvement in the political sphere is also in no way new. Business interest group has long partake in political activities, most notable way being in the forms of political contributions, and deployed attempts on influencing of public opinion by utilizing mass media not only for issues related to their operations but even beyond that. Starbucks’ endorsement on gay marriages, or Budweiser’s comment on Trump’s immigration policy are examples of companies advocating things that are not related to their business (although with these cases it’s important to note that economical kickback could serve as motivation)⁹ ¹⁰.

But these two cases in particular stands out not only because it combines the two factors mentioned above, it was also added by two facts. One is how the parties involved are tech companies, which I think is critical as they build their reputation by understanding how to manage and make use of technological disruption, the possible effectiveness of digital-based campaign and subsequently how to extract their massive digital base. Especially in the case of Google, an in-depth knowledge on how the algorithm works on social media platforms so that the message could garner more attention from public contribute to the campaign’s effectiveness. The second reason to why they’re unique is how the end result is a policy that highly correlate with these companies’ business practices AND is considered a new issue, therefore (if passed) could create a precedent on how tech companies and related digital activities are regulated.

What are the implication?

One of the main implication is actually part of the a larger political shift due to the growing use of internet, especially social media, which is how social media and internet in general is currently changing political dynamics. As noted by Gainous & Wagner (2014) ¹¹,

“The way information is propagated can generate changes in the political behavior of large populations (Converse 1962; Kernell 1994; Prior 2007)”.

They have also puts in a statement by Kimber (2003) how the most significant change is in regard to the amount of information present and the timeliness of it all ¹². Even comparing current situation with the previous Lord (2000) writing that states that advocacy advertising have minimal to no result due to the general public lack of attention toward public policy, we can see quite a difference now. Although the notion of public’s aloofness with public policy still holds true to some extent, the prevalence of internet and social media has make political content more accessible and abundant than ever, making it more possible that a higher level of public participation could be reached (although I also recognize the argument that it also could be counter productive as the many political content could in turns be desensitizing). In relations to the topic at hand, Gainous & Wagner note a critical difference on how internet could change political dynamics is that the internet (for the most part) has no obvious gatekeeper¹³. They use this statement to explain how politicians can control the content that they are spreading and how it could be a way to build like-minded media network. But for the purpose of this case, this lack of gatekeeper-ness also facilitated these type of cases where companies, especially those who are in feud with the government, could also build its own media network without much restrain unlike the case with traditional media.

Beyond reshaping the political environment, these cases also showcase how powerful these tech companies really are, especially in terms of maximizing the effectiveness of internet-based campaign to utilize their digital users base, and give snippets of what is possible in the future as government put more scrutiny toward its operation. Take for example from these two cases. In the first one we could point out how companies are able to use pop-up notifications to attract supporter from its user base. The more apparent example could be seen on the second one where Google not only are able to put on notification on its search engine homepage (which by the way hold a share of 94% of Australian search market and in it of itself quite impactful¹⁴), by recognizing and emphasizing its importance in the daily life of Australian citizen it was able to have strong bargaining position, which could be seen in its actions of “threatening” to pull out from the country, in a legislation debate with a developed sovereign state. This show of power could possibly represent how we could expect a disagreement between company and local government would come to play and I am curious to see whether this would serve as some kind of deterrence for the current wave of scrutiny from governments or would it further serve as a justification on why exactly these companies should be scrutinized.

I observe that these type of debates around the supposedly unchecked power of major tech company has gained steam as internet and social media became more widely used, with notable example is when many tech companies de-platform Donald Trump post the Capitol insurrection earlier this year ¹⁵. Beyond influencing public opinion in political discussion, other measures of scrutiny by various government toward major tech players could be seen in Antitrust lawsuits, such as the case with Amazon v. European Union in regards to Amazon Prime ¹⁶.

A Reflection

Just to be clear, I am in no way saying that companies, or anyone really should be ban from using digital-based campaigns to advocate for themselves and/or their standings in a political issue, since it is all in their right to do so and considering society’s dependence on technology there’s also strategic reasoning that came into play. Rather, I want to end this writing by highlighting the importance of independent research in forming opinions and checking sources and bias on publications, especially online. It’s fair to say that the saying “don’t believe everything you see on the internet” holds true (which quite honestly is a little Touché since I am posting this on the internet). Going forward, more in-depth research about the topic is necessary, especially in analyzing the public’s response on social media beyond each policy end-result and in the long term observe how social media usage for political purposes evolve. This is crucial due to its implication on corporate political activity strategy and in the case of a democratic political system, the legislation making process of new regulations that oversee various aspects in the currently evolving digital sphere.

References

[1] “California Proposition 22, App-Based Drivers As Contractors And Labor Policies Initiative (2020) — Ballotpedia”. 2020. Ballotpedia. https://ballotpedia.org/California_Proposition_22,_App-Based_Drivers_as_Contractors_and_Labor_Policies_Initiative_(2020)#Election_results

[2] Secretary of State. 2020. “Statement Of Vote”. Sacramento.

[3] Hussain, Suhauna, Johana Bhuiyan, and Ryan Menezes. 2020. “How Uber, Lyft persuaded California to vote their way”. LATimes. https://www.latimes.com/business/technology/story/2020-11-13/how-uber-lyft-doordash-won-proposition-22

[4] Hawkins, Andrew. 2020. “Uber And Lyft Had An Edge In The Prop 22 Fight: Their Apps”. The Verge. https://www.theverge.com/2020/11/4/21549760/uber-lyft-prop-22-win-vote-app-message-notifications.

[5] “News media bargaining code”. 2020. Australian Competition & Consumer Commission. https://www.accc.gov.au/focus-areas/digital-platforms/news-media-bargaining-code

[6] Leaver, Tama. 2021. “Web’s inventor says news news media bargaining code could break the internet. He’s right — but there’s a fix”. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/webs-inventor-says-news-media-bargaining-code-could-break-the-internet-hes-right-but-theres-a-fix-153630

[7] Silva, Mel. 2020. “Update on the News Media Bargaining Code and Google in Australia”. Google. https://about.google/google-in-australia/an-open-letter/

[8] Lord, Michael D. “Corporate political strategy and legislative decision making: The impact of corporate legislative influence activities.” Business & Society 39, no. 1 (2000): 76–93.

[9] Phillip, Abby. 2012. “Gay marriages advocates gain corporate support”. Politico. https://www.politico.com/story/2012/06/gay-marriage-advocates-gain-corporate-support-077002

[10] Gajanan, Mahita. 2017. “People Want to Boycott Budweiser Over Its Super Bowl Immigration Ad”. Fortune. https://fortune.com/2017/02/05/budweiser-super-bowl-commercial-immigration-boycott/

[11] [12] [13] Gainous, Jason, and Kevin M. Wagner. Tweeting to power: The social media revolution in American politics. Oxford University Press, 2014.

[14] Kaye, Byron. 2021. “As Google eyes Australia exit, Microsoft talks Bing with PM”. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-australia-media-microsoft-idUSKBN2A118A

[15] Fischer, Sara, and Gold, Ashley. “All the platforms that have banner or restricted Trump so far”. Axios. https://www.axios.com/platforms-social-media-ban-restrict-trump-d9e44f3c-8366-4ba9-a8a1-7f3114f920f1.html

[16] Amaro, Silvia. “EU says Amazon breached antitrust rules, opens second investigation”. CNBC. https://www.cnbc.com/2020/11/10/eu-hits-amazon-with-antitrust-charges-for-distorting-competition.html#:~:text=LONDON%20%E2%80%94%20The%20European%20Commission%20said,data%20for%20its%20own%20benefit.&text=The%20commission's%20second%20antitrust%20investigation,its%20paid%2Dfor%20premium%20service.

Notes: If you are really interested to know more about social media and how it transformed politics, with more in-depth theoretical explanation I recommend reading Jason Gainous and Kevin M. Wagner’s Tweeting to Power: The Social Media Revolution of American Politics.