Just Say Now: Facebook, Google and the Reddit Revolt

August 31, 2010 – A funny thing happened last week with our Just Say Now campaign. Well, a couple of “funny” things. Large online communities proved, en masse, that they were waaaay ahead of both corporate America and our political leadership when it comes to their readiness to discuss an end to marijuana prohibition.

Moreover, it’s an issue they feel very strongly about.

Facebook Just Says No

Facebook initially approved and ran 38 million impressions of the “Just Say Now” ad featuring our logo, a marijuana leaf in a “speech” balloon. The logo is a very specific symbol of what the Just Say Now campaign is trying to do: get people to talk about marijuana policy. It transcends the boundaries of culture, language and class.

Inexplicably, Facebook suddenly banned the ads. They subsequently gave us ever-shifting excuses as to why they did so — we were told that “that the image in question was no long[er] acceptable for use in Facebook ads. The image of a pot leaf is classified with all smoking products and therefore is not acceptable under our policies.”

But the Just Say Now campaign isn’t trying to get people to smoke more pot. Americans consume 113 billion dollars worth of weed each year, so I doubt that would even be possible. Rather, it’s a political campaign directly related to ballot initiatives in five states this November. As Michael Whitney of the Just Say Now campaign said, “It’s like running a campaign and saying you can’t show the candidate’s face.”

The ads with the marijuana leaf in them were iconic, immediately recognizable in Facebook’s small ad format to anyone who cares about the issue. The ads with that logo performed twice as well as any other ad on Facebook. Moreover, Facebook knew this. They could see the same statistics we could.

Maybe Facebook would like to give up the use of the blue Facebook “F” button that is ubiquitous across the internet? In a 2.0 world, the Just Say Now logo of a marijuana leaf in a speech balloon is just as important to us.

We launched a petition to get Facebook to reverse its decision, and took out ads on both right and left blogs across the internet. We asked people to replace their Facebook avatars with Just Say Now logos with “censored” across the marijuana leaf.

Much to our surprise, it caused a minor tsunami in the media:

Ryan Grim’s story drew 6,282 comments, was retweeted 4,365 times, and shared on Facebook 5,597 times off the Huffington Post alone.

The story was covered everywhere:
Boing Boing PC World CBS News UPI NBC Gawker Wired
Alternet IT World Mediaite LA Weekly Network World Computerworld Reuters
Bay Area Indymedia Colorado Springs Independent Drug War Chronicle San Fransicso Chronicle Product Reviews OverTheLimit Fast Company
Newser MyStateline HULIQ Gather Adotas NewsOXY Young Turks
Independent Political Report 420 Times SmartTrend St. Louis Globe-Democrat Arizona Daily Wildcat Austin Chronicle Herald & Review
LA Times CNET PoliJAM CWCBD RightTV Thaindian CIO
Drug War Rant Liberty Papers Marketing Pilgrim Small Gov Times Salem Libertarian Examiner Computerworld UK The Olympian
Lexington Herald Leader Modesto Bee Myrtl Beach Sun News Centre Daily Times Bellingham Herald The Republic Sun Herald
Kansas City Star Belleville News Democrat Macon Telegraph Good Gear Guide Computerworld Austrailia Stop the Drug War LA Times Blog
OC Weekly IT World Atlantic SF Weekly NY Times LAist CNET

We couldn’t measure the impact of the campaign across Facebook itself. The Just Say Now avatars seemed to be everywhere. But when we asked the Facebook folks if they knew how many had been swapped out, they said they didn’t know.

Google Says Yes

At the same time we launched the campaign to get Facebook to relent, we also submitted the ads with the Just Say Now logo to Google. Google said they’d run them, and subsequently got a lot of good press for that decision.

From the LA Times:

“Facebook’s concocted prissiness over political advocacy is more to be disparaged than imitated,” Bruce Fein, a lawyer and author who worked in President Reagan’s Justice Department and a Just Say Now advisory board member, said in a statement. “Freedom of expression is made of sterner stuff. Google deserves applause for exposing Facebook to shame.”

We also learned that Facebook had done the same thing to the Libertarian Party. On July 23, Facebook pulled the ads they had already approved for the campaign that was getting very successful:

We do not allow ads for marijuana or political ads for the promotion of marijuana and will not allow the creation of any further Facebook Ads for this product.

But Facebook subsequently accepted the Just Say Now logo ads on August 7, so that was a crock.

Conde Nast and Reddit Go To War Over Just Say Now Ads

When they heard that Facebook wouldn’t run the Just Say Now ads, the Reddit advertising sales people contacted us. Reddit has several popular marijuana pages (“sub-reddits, or redit sites dedicates to specific topics and managed by users). It seemed like a natural fit.

But Reddit’s owners, Conde Nast, decided to big foot the decision. Not only did they ban the image, they banned all marijuana issue-related advertising, saying “As a corporation, Conde Nast does not want to benefit financially from this particular issue.”

Michael Whitney wrote this post on FDL:
Reddit Won’t Run Any Display Ads for Marijuana Legalization

We submitted it to Reddit, and within hours, the community was in an uproar. The Reddit site has 5 million unique users a month who tend to be tech savvy, and they instantly began turning on “ad blockers” to deny Reddit and Conde Nast advertising revenue in the wake of the decision.

We didn’t have much of a way to measure the user revolt impact on Facebook, but shortly after Michael’s post appeared, this was what Reddit looked like:

The Reddit staff responded by saying that the decision by Conde Nast was made without consulting them, and they called it “bullshit.” The staff signed their names to a dissent letter, and said that the would run the Just Say Now ads for free. The Just Say Now ads are running now on the Reddit site.

Wired’s Ryan Singel has a good rundown of the Reddit/Conde Nast controversy on Wired.

EFF Enters the Debate

The Electronic Frontier Foundation wrote an important piece on the controversy surrounding the ads. In it, they said Facebook’s refusal to run the ads threatened to deprive voters of important information regarding the ballot initiatives this fall:

Facebook should lift the ban and show Just Say Now’s political ads. For better or worse, Facebook has become a important means of communication and organization for candidates and political campaigns. In this role, Facebook functions best as a neutral platform, hosting the debate without entering it. Whether or not Facebook wants to restrict depictions of smoking in commercial ads, it should not prohibit the open and robust political debate central to the value and promise of the Internet.

NYU Journalism school professor Jay Rosen also weighed in, saying “So Facebook is deciding what the sphere of deviance is now? They were supposed to be a platform.”

Where Do We Go From Here?

I had lunch with Allen St. Pierre of NORML on Friday. He’s been working with the organization for 20 years, and day in, day out they act as a resource for people who need help when they are arrested.

“By the time I get back to the office, 100 people will have called wanting help,” he said. The group has performed an extremely valuable service for decades now, and polls indicate that 25% of Americans know the NORML brand and what it stands for.

Allen indicated that one of the things the marijuana reform movement has been missing is a sustained messaging campaign around the need to end marijuana prohibition. He was happy that the major groups had now joined together with both law enforcement and criminal justice professionals, across party lines, to do just that as part of the Just Say Now campaign.

As Mexican President Felipe Calderon said only weeks ago, we need to start having a conversation about the possibility of ending marijuana prohibition. The war on drugs has clearly failed, and US marijuana policy is threatening the stability not only of Mexico but of Columbia and other Latin American nations. It’s also causing a crisis on our borders. Our prison population has quadrupled since Nancy Reagan began her “Just Say No” campaign in the mid-80s, and both the social and economic burden have become crushing.

The Just Say Now campaign will continue to fight to bring the discussion of marijuana policy reform out into the open. Our goal is to free it from the demagoguerey of the culture wars, and the sniggering insinuation that the only ones who care about the issue are potheads. It’s not “unserious.” It’s a matter of national security, and for many, an issue of life and death.

The decision of Facebook and Conde Nast to suppress legitimate political speech was roundly rejected by vast numbers of users within their communities. The Just Say Now campaign applauds those who are willing to step forward and declare their support for ending marijuana prohibition. It is a critical first action that people must take before we can have a sane and rational drug policy in this country, and the courage of those who are willing to do so is exemplary.

Sign the peition: Ask President Obama to end the war on marijuana.

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