Despite the "bombshell" testimony of the Facebook “whistleblower” Frances Haugen, which scorched the social network before Congress on Tuesday, advertisers appear to be sticking with the social media giant. Major agencies and brands continue to take the path of least resistance with Facebook, giving the company the benefit of the doubt, even as members of Congress questioned the company’s credibility.
It’s been a punishing few weeks for Facebook: There was a series of Wall Street Journal reports based on files Haugen obtained before leaving the company earlier this year. The Facebook files and Haugen’s testimony touched on several issues that advertisers have been working on, hand-in-hand with Facebook, for years, problems like political polarization amplified by algorithms, hate speech, and the effects of social media on teen health.
Advertisers have been trying to understand what the Facebook disclosures mean for the industry. But even the research about kids on Instagram has not quite deterred advertisers. “What it’s going to take is a lot more platform scrutiny in order to have your general brands react,” said Chelsea Gross, a senior principal analyst at Gartner.
In the meantime, representatives of major ad agencies, including IPG Mediabrands, Omnicom Media Group, and WPP, said they have been informing their brands about the issues with Facebook. They continue to work with Facebook on priorities, like setting brand safety standards.
Advertisers also remember the brand boycott from July 2020, which raised many of the same issues being highlighted by Haugen. More than 1,000 brands joined the boycott, organized by the Anti-Defamation League and NAACP, to protest hate speech and disinformation. The action led Facebook to make commitments that it is still working on, like standing up brand safety tools in News Feed and auditing its community moderation reports. The boycott did not dent Facebook’s $85 billion in revenue in 2020.
"I don't even think a boycott does anything," said one media buyer. "They are so big and so much of their money comes from small and local advertisers. I think it is better for national brands to work with Facebook to help them solve these issues."
Ad Age spoke with a number of ad executives in recent days who said that most brands are not looking for new fights with the world’s largest social network. Advertisers needed to look no further than the outage on Monday to prove the importance of Facebook. On Monday, Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp were down for six hours, throwing chaos into the ad plans of more than 10 million advertisers.
On Tuesday night, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote a lengthy post on his Facebook page responding to the claims made by members of Congress, critics and Haugen. “At the heart of these accusations is this idea that we prioritize profit over safety and well-being,” Zuckerberg said. “That's just not true.”
“The argument that we deliberately push content that makes people angry for profit is deeply illogical,” Zuckerberg said. “We make money from ads, and advertisers consistently tell us they don't want their ads next to harmful or angry content. And I don't know any tech company that sets out to build products that make people angry or depressed. The moral, business and product incentives all point in the opposite direction.”
On Tuesday, Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said that Haugen’s revelations were a “bombshell.” The “whistleblower” revealed information about Facebook’s internal research that showed how Instagram could harm teens. Facebook ultimately disclosed the studies publicly, with its own annotations explaining the context. The findings were relevant to advertisers, showing that ads for products related to dieting and body image made some teens feel worse about themselves. Facebook researchers also found that teens were less trusting of “influencers,” and wanted more authentic peers or authority figures to help them with sensitive personal issues.