‘Inside Amazon’ Facebook ads surged after Teamsters union drive announced

Ads focused on company’s minimum wage policy, a company talking point when facing criticism from lawmakers & critics

Ian Delabie
Sep 14 · 6 min read

A new analysis of Amazon corporate 2021 spending on Facebook political ads by NYU Cybersecurity for Democracy reveals patterns of strategic spending nationally as well as regionally. According to data from Facebook Ad Library transparency reports, Amazon spending surged nearly 14-fold, from $26,000 on the week of June 24 to nearly $355,000 on the week of July 1, soon after the Teamsters Union, a prominent labor union with national reach, announced a campaign to unionize Amazon workers.

So far this year, spending has been concentrated in states such as Alabama and New York, where the e-commerce giant is expanding its workforce and facing controversy in its opposition to union organization efforts amongst its 950,000 American employees.

The ads in question–disclosed as “social issues, elections, or politics” ads by Facebook–promote the benefits of Amazon’s minimum starting wage of $15/hour. Amazon’s support of a $15/hour federal wage is a major talking point when facing unionization drives. The sponsor of the ads, Inside Amazon, describes itself as the “Official Facebook page for Amazon corporate employees.” Unlike Amazon’s more conventional ads for products run under Facebook pages such as “Amazon Explore” and “Amazon Lifestyle,” Inside Amazon appears to be selling the benefits of working at one of its over 100 warehouses in the United States, dubbed fulfillment centers. Between February 4 and August 12, Amazon spent a total of $4,144,176 on Inside Amazon ads.

Inside Amazon 2021 ads focused on the federal minimum wage campaign, with more spending in states with union drives and expansion plans.

From a cursory glance, these ads may appear aimed to attract new employees. But the individual ads do not link to a recruiting site, but rather to a company site on its minimum wage campaign.

Since Inside Amazon began running the $15/hour ads in March 2021, ad spending has surged twice. The most recent surge dates back to late June soon after the Teamsters announced a nationwide strategy to support unionization efforts of Amazon workers. Inside Amazon ad spending rose from $26,101 in the week prior to the official announcement on June 24 to $354,698 in the preceding week.

A breakdown of spending for this particular surge points to a pattern of ad spending in states where the company anticipates a considerable expansion in workforce and the opening of new facilities. While this pattern mirrors the first surge in May, which followed Amazon’s own press release that it would be expanding its workforce by an additional 75,000 employees, Inside Amazon disproportionately spent in states where the Teamsters maintain a significant presence such as Illinois, New York and New Jersey. Between June 12th and August 12th, Inside Amazon spent an additional $338,500 on Facebook ads in New York, where Amazon is also facing an independent unionization effort in Staten Island.

Reports by Bloomberg, Vice, Wired, and more have detailed how Amazon’s $15 dollar/hour policy can be seen as part of its corporate expansion and anti-union strategy.

Wired notes that Amazon’s decision in 2018 to raise wages is “unequivocally a good thing, with the power to positively impact the lives of hundreds of thousands of workers who were paid low wages even as their employer amassed enormous wealth.” However, it can also be seen as part of its strategy as it expands and faces criticism from lawmakers and unions: “Amazon is likely betting…that increasing pay will do more than just alleviate pressure from lawmakers and activists who want the retail giant to improve its working conditions.”

Within the same spending period, the Teamsters have also spent on Facebook ads — a total of $40,989. However, patterns of geographical spending and messaging have not corresponded with unionization drives, but rather have focused on criticisms towards elected officials and candidates in upcoming local elections.

The 2021 Teamsters Facebook ads focused on elections.

A close examination of initial ad spending by Inside Amazon in March 2021 reveals a pattern similar to the late June surge. Early spending on these ads occurred in a two-week period from March 4 up until March 18. Exclusively targeted to Alabama, the timing of ad-spending coincides with the tail-end of the seven-week window in which Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer were voting to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). Up until the last day of voting on March 29, Amazon had yet to spend on Inside Amazon ads outside of Alabama.

The AP reported how Amazon used its stance on the $15/hour wage as an anti-union message: “Amazon argued that it paid workers at least $15 an hour and already offered the benefits unions want. It hung anti-union signs throughout the warehouse, including inside bathroom stalls, and held mandatory meetings to convince workers why the union is a bad idea.”

The week before the Bessemer results were announced on April 9th, Inside Amazon focused its ad targeting on Texas and Florida. Notably, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican, published his support of the Bessemer unionization effort via a USA Today opinion piece on March 12. Much like Alabama, Florida and Texas are right-to-work states and are expected to house some of Amazon’s largest workforce expansions in the United States over the coming years.

Universal ad transparency needed

The pattern of strategic spending by Inside Amazon, discussed here provides an example of why the public needs universal ad transparency from Facebook and other online platforms. The data trends discussed in this piece are limited to the voluntary ad transparency provided by Facebook, which is incomplete:

  • Facebook only voluntarily discloses information about ads that are about “social issues, elections, and politics,” deciding which ads meet these criteria with no outside oversight;
  • Research by Cybersecurity for Democracy shows that Facebook often fails to disclose ads that meet its own criteria of what’s a social issue, elections, or politics ad;
  • Facebook has cracked down on independent research efforts to collect data from the platform, including anonymized targeting data — the criteria advertisers use to select who sees an ad.

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Ian Delabie

Written by

Cybersecurity for Democracy

Cybersecurity for Democracy (cybersecurityfordemocracy.org) is a research-based effort to expose online threats to our social fabric — and recommend how to counter them. We are part of the Center for Cybersecurity at NYU.