Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images
I’m not sure if you’ve heard, maybe you don’t know, I don’t want to presume, but there’s an impeachment inquiry going on. You’re shocked, I understand. “The president? Bad?” you ask. It’s possible. Who can say? That’s what the inquiry is for.
But already, there is a media war being waged over public perception, and one of the most important battlegrounds is Facebook, where impeachment-related ads are being bought at a rapid pace. On Wednesday, Axios reported that the Trump campaign spent $718,000 on ads related to the impeachment inquiry between September 29 and October 5 (the data was compiled by the third-party research firm Bully Pulpit Interactive). Other parties have also been spending vigorously to rally Facebook users for or against impeachment. Mitch McConnell spent $40,000, Elizabeth Warren spent $20,000. Billionaire and fringe candidate Tom Steyer, who spends millions on Facebook ads for shits and giggles, has spent $86,000 to boost posts related to the topic into users’ News Feeds.
But second to Trump, the entity spending the most on Facebook ads related to impeachment is a Wisconsin-based spice company, Penzeys Spices. “You may not have been paying much attention this week, but the short version is the end is very near for this terrible turn the Republican Party has taken. The president’s Ukraine scandal is the big one. I get that it can be hard to believe any scandal will stick, but this one is different,” CEO Bill Penzey wrote in a post for his page’s 645,936 followers.
Axios reported that Penzeys spent $92,000 to boost their Facebook posts on impeachment, but over the phone this afternoon, Penzey said it was actually $128,000, which seems like a lot, but is roughly a third of what the company might spend on mailing out its catalogues this month. Penzey founded his namesake company in 1986, and it does most of its business through the mail and a few dozen physical locations.
“I’d sent out an email to our customers the weekend before on the topic, and the response to it was very energized,” Penzey recalled. “And I looked at it and thought, we gotta do a Facebook post about this, because this is something that people are very interested in right now.”
There is some novelty in the largest pro-impeachment ad spend on Facebook being made by the independent spice retailer preferred by my mom, but wading into political waters is not new territory for Penzey. Shortly after Trump’s election, he wrote an email to the Penzeys mailing list criticizing the “open embrace of racism by the Republican Party.”
This move, of openly discussing politics, is conventionally considered bad for business. Taking strong political stances, supposedly, can alienate the fraction of consumers to disagree — nobody wants to feel shamed as they’re buying a jar of lemon-pepper seasoning. Better to do things the old-fashioned way: funding lobbyists and astroturf advocacy groups to push your efforts. Penzey, though, sees things differently. “For all the troubles that people running businesses have to face, I get that — but you know, I think that being neutral is sort of a luxury of the past,” he said. Perhaps the only other company with a consistent track record of relatively radical corporate politics is Ben & Jerry’s, which released the flavor last year, Pecan Resist, “a Limited Batch ice-cream flavor celebrating the activists who are continuing to resist oppression, harmful environmental practices, and injustice.”
There’s plenty of reason to be skeptical of Penzey; countless companies and personalities have built their brands on the backs of partisan resentment and frustration. Plenty of #resistance personalities have spent their time feverishly shitposting their way to book deals. Obviously, Penzey has a business interest in opposing Trump. Many of the spices he sells grow within 10 or 15 degrees of the equator, and he says tariffs have affected how he does business. The spice trade is, now and forever, inherently political.
Penzey’s candor on Facebook about the issues facing the country, however, is complicated in other respects too. He said that three years ago, he also noticed the well-documented change in how posts on Facebook pages performed and the decline of organic reach (reach that isn’t paid for). Now, he says, “pretty much everything you see from a business is an ad.” The cost is reasonable to him, but pages have to pay Facebook to reach their customer base. That means that whenever Penzey wants to talk to his spice customers, he has to effectively buy a political ad.
That process for buying political ads has gotten more and more complicated in the wake of the 2016 election, when Russian operatives infiltrated the platform to “meddle” (a nebulous term often used to describe how foreign entities used social media to try to stoke domestic tensions) in American politics. Now, anyone running an ad “about social issues, elections, or politics” has to prove their identity to Facebook by receiving physical mail. Penzey also suspects that it costs more. In case you were worried, the amount Penzey spent on impeachment ads is in the same ballpark as the amount Russians spent to boost their own posts, and neither is enough on its own to really sway public opinion in a significant way.
“There was never like, ‘oh, let’s do political spending on impeachment ads on Facebook, and let’s see if we can’t beat out everyone but Trump,’” Penzey said. “It was just, you know, our form of communication falls into that category. And then because of how well this post was doing, we kept promoting it for a longer period of time.”
As for the long-term effects, Penzey isn’t worried. He recalled an event a decade and a half ago in which his catalogue showed a same-sex couple with triplets. “The fact that we showed two men as being these caring people being kind to children and caring for each other,” he noted, “that was something that caused 8 percent of our customers to quit us right there.” Most of them eventually returned. There’s something to be said for being on the right side of history.