On a recent Monday, an Amazon employee named Ernesto stopped at a South Lake Union street corner to take a picture. In front of him was a mobile billboard. Its all-caps message blared: "AMAZON, STOP FUNDING BIGOTRY. PLEASE PULL YOUR ADS FROM BREITBART."
Picture taken, Ernesto continued on his walk to lunch. When I caught up with him, he told me he's a 26-year-old software engineer and he moved to Seattle about three years ago from Miami. He declined to give his last name but said he voted for Hillary Clinton in the presidential election. "I haven't read it so much," Ernesto said of the conservative website Breitbart. "But from what I've read, it's the leading website for the so-called alt-right."
True. Breitbart, in the words of founder and current White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon, is "the platform for the alt-right." That's one reason an anonymous online group called Sleeping Giants has spent the last eight months running a campaign aimed at getting companies to pull their ads from Breitbart.
Another reason is the site's content, which is often transparently racist, misogynist, Islamophobic, transphobic, and more. "HOIST IT HIGH AND PROUD: THE CONFEDERATE FLAG PROCLAIMS A GLORIOUS HERITAGE," read one offensive Breitbart headline from July 2015. Other offensive Breitbart headlines include "BIRTH CONTROL MAKES WOMEN UNATTRACTIVE AND CRAZY" (December 2015), "TEENAGE BOYS WITH TITS: HERE'S MY PROBLEM WITH GHOST- BUSTERS" (July 2016), "GABBY GIFFORDS: THE GUN CONTROL MOVEMENT'S HUMAN SHIELD" (March 2015), and "THERE'S NO HIRING BIAS AGAINST WOMEN IN TECH, THEY JUST SUCK AT INTERVIEWS" (July 2016).
So far, more than 2,300 companies and organizations have stopped advertising on Breitbart in response to the Sleeping Giants campaign, including well-known brands like Campbell's Soup, Kellogg's, Bed Bath & Beyond, Mercedes-Benz, Nestlé, Hallmark, Squarespace, and BMW. Even companies that are not known for their liberal sympathies—such as Uber, British Petroleum, and Chase Bank—have pulled their ads. According to the online media and marketing news site Digiday, the effect on Breitbart's advertising base has been significant, with "just 26 brands appearing on Breitbart in May, down from a high of 242 in March." (Though, as Digiday also notes, "even if Breitbart's advertising dries up completely, it still has a billionaire benefactor in Robert Mercer," the right-wing hedge fund manager who was a big supporter of both the Trump campaign and the Brexit push.)
Yet as other major companies abandon Breitbart advertising, Amazon remains a stubborn, silent holdout.
The company refuses to publicly respond to the demand that it stop funding Breitbart through ad buys. It did not reply to a request for comment for this article, and it has so far declined to heed the wishes of a group of more than 600 Amazon employees who have organized around this issue, calling on their employer to stop providing ad revenue for a site that mocks values the company claims to uphold in its day-to-day business practices.
Ernesto told me he personally agrees with the campaign to get Amazon to pull its Breitbart ads, as did other Amazon workers out on their lunch break that Monday. One 24-year-old program manager, when she learned her company isn't dropping its Breitbart ads, responded, "That's shitty." She was eating her lunch on the steps near the South Lake Union Whole Foods (purchased by Amazon as part of a $13.7 billion deal last month). While the mobile billboard from Sleeping Giants circled the block, she added: "I personally don't agree with almost anything that's published on Breitbart."
As the effort to get Amazon's attention grinds on, some local politicians are joining the outcry and backing the employee group. Seattle mayoral candidate Cary Moon told me she "absolutely" supports the campaign to get Amazon to drop its Breitbart ads. "Amazon employees have been talking about this since January," Moon said. "It's the right thing to do, and I encourage Amazon to get on the right side of history." Two other candidates for mayor, Jessyn Farrell and Mike McGinn, also said they support the campaign. (Mayor Ed Murray did not respond to repeated questions about his position on the city's largest private employer purchasing advertising on Breitbart. No member of the Seattle City Council would comment either, nor would the three other leading candidates for mayor: Nikkita Oliver, Bob Hasegawa, and Jenny Durkan.)
Interestingly, two Amazon subsidiaries have pulled their advertising in response to the Sleeping Giants campaign: Zappos and Audible. Still, one can regularly find ads for the Amazon marketplace on Breitbart. As recently as July 10, the Breitbart homepage offered me click-through Amazon ads for books, including The Curious Kid's Guide to Donald Trump.
Initially, part of what caused even unlikely organizations like Greenpeace and Save the Children to end up with ads on Breitbart is something called "programmatic advertising." From the consumer side, programmatic ads are the ones that follow you around from website to website because, at some point in your digital life, you somehow expressed an interest in, say, Crocs, and then some internet advertising companies noticed. From the retailer side, "programmatic advertising" is often an easy opportunity for, say, Amazon to make a large, undifferentiated purchase of ads that it's been promised will land in front of eyeballs that are likely to be interested in shopping at Amazon.
But just as buyers and sellers of programmatic advertising long ago figured out how to keep ads for Cheerios from popping up on hardcore porn sites, they have long since figured out how to keep Amazon's ads from popping up on Breitbart—if Amazon wishes.
Why Amazon instead wishes to continue advertising on Breitbart remains a mystery.
"It seems really antithetical, not just to your business but to your own company to be putting your ads on a site that's denigrating all those people," said one of the Sleeping Giants organizers, who, like the other organizers of the group, won't give their name because they all work in media-related fields. "We've been trying to get an answer. It's been really difficult and, honestly, really depressing... There aren't really any big brands left on there but Amazon."
One theory that floats around is this: Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who purchased the Washington Post in 2013, has been a repeated target of threats from President Donald Trump. CNN has described this as "Donald Trump's War on Jeff Bezos." During the presidential campaign, Trump said of Amazon, "Believe me, if I become president, oh do they have problems." In May, nearly four months after taking office, Trump told Fox News that Bezos "has a huge antitrust problem." Then, on June 28, Trump took to Twitter to describe "the #AmazonWashingtonPost" as "FAKE NEWS." He also accused Amazon of "not paying internet taxes" (again). That claim is false—although one could argue that Amazon is not paying enough taxes on its internet sales, which is where the Trump threat lies. By continuing to fund Breitbart through advertising buys, perhaps Bezos gives himself a way to calm fuming Republicans in DC when they corner him and threaten punishment for his paper's supposed liberal—or anti-Trump—agenda.
"It's definitely something we've thought of from the beginning," said the Sleeping Giants organizer. But in the absence of any comment from Amazon, the organizer added, "Your guess is as good as mine."