Facebook promises better guardrails for brands scared of the chaos in its News Feed
The Facebook ad protest started as a political statement, but has also touched a nerve that has nagged advertisers for years: brand safety.
Brands want assurances that their messages will not appear above, below or next to content that they find objectionable. It is a promise that is all but impossible to fully satisfy, but in recent weeks Facebook has been talking with advertisers about how it will finally tame its News Feed.
To that end, Facebook is developing new levels of transparency that would give marketers a better understanding about how it monitors hate speech and the context in which ads run. Ellie Bamford, VP of media at R/GA, says Facebook is working on ways to report to brands more information about what else is on the page when an ad runs in News Feed. Entities like the Media Rating Council can grade Facebook’s effectiveness in weeding out offensive material. There are companies like DoubleVerify, Moat and Integral Ad Science that can grade the brand safety of any given digital setting by analyzing comments, images and other media on the page.
But this is a problem that won’t be subject to any quick fix. “The News Feed, that is not a safe place at the moment,” says Bamford. “The only way to be 100 percent guaranteed that you aren’t going to experience an issue being around misinformation, or hateful content, or racist content, or unsafe content, is by not advertising there,” Bamford says. “That is the only way to avoid it right now.”
Bamford says that Facebook has developed brand safety measures for other parts of the platform, like its ad network, known as the Facebook Audience Network, and within video advertising, among other areas. She say that News Feed poses unique challenges and that some brands have to decide their threshold of risk before returning.
‘Stop Hate For Profit’
In June, the NAACP, Anti-Defamation League, Color of Change, Free Press, Mozilla, Sleeping Giants and other activist groups organized the boycott that they call Stop Hate for Profit, asking brands to freeze advertising on Facebook through July. The organizers say they have 1,000 brands on board, including Unilever, Pfizer, Starbucks, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and other big corporate signatories.
The movement started because of the Black Lives Matter protests, when masses of Americans marched for George Floyd, who was killed in May by Minneapolis police. The protesters’ outrage turned to Facebook after President Donald Trump used the service to stoke violence. In May, Trump went on Twitter and Facebook to say, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Groups like the NAACP took that as a threat against Black lives.
That served as a warning to advertisers that the 2020 election is turning platforms like Facebook and Twitter into contentious debate grounds with polarized factions that might not be the best settings for product placements.
The Facebook boycott organizers have 10 demands, including getting Facebook to hire an executive with civil rights experience. (Facebook late last week announced stricter rules against promoting white nationalism and promised to appoint an executive with experience in civil rights as part of a new slate of solutions.) They also want stricter moderation policies that give Facebook a firmer hand tossing offensive accounts. The demands extend to advertising, asking Facebook to be more transparent about where ads run and to refund advertisers when they appear near objectionable material.
It’s not only Facebook
To be clear, Facebook is not the only platform where brands are worried about getting burned. Marketers are looking at Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, TikTok and others as potentially unsafe spaces. Facebook is just the largest target, with 2.6 billion monthly users on the social network, and a cumulative 3 billion users across Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger. Facebook generated $70 billion in ad revenue in 2019.
Many brands have joined the boycott publicly, but others have joined it quietly, according to advertising executives who work with brands.
“The NAACP is calling for just a month, but some brands are looking to make a statement and looking at longer, and looking at more than just Facebook, in terms of what they’re pausing,” says Nancy Smith, CEO of Analytic Partners, an ad technology and measurement firm.
Smith is hearing the same brand safety questions that R/GA’s Bamford and other advertising execs are fielding. “Right now, the U.S. is polarized and there is heightened passion around racism and so many angry people posting angry stuff,” Smith says. “It feels dangerous to be out there because you don’t know what land mine you’ll be next to.”
Independent audit permitted
This month, Facebook promised to open its platform to an audit by the Media Rating Council, an independent trade body that certifies media companies meet certain standards important to advertisers. The Media Rating Council can give its seal of approval, signaling that a media company reaches the audience it claims, or abides by industry-established content standards.
“What we mean by that is that Facebook has the appropriate structures in place, meaning that they comply with our industry standards around brand safety practices,” says David Gunzerath, senior VP and associate director at the Media Rating Council, “and also that they’re able to effectively administer these processes to help advertisers protect their advertising investments. That they’re not appearing in environments that they don’t want to appear in.”
Azher Ahmed, exec VP and chief digital officer at DDB, says that most advertisers with a sophisticated grasp of the digital ecosystem understand there will not ever be 100 percent safety, especially in places like Facebook’s News Feed. Advertisers just want to know that there are systems for watching the platform and disclosure when brands are affected.
Trust issues with the ad world
“As long as there’s reasonable ways for people to report and those reports are being heard and acted upon, I think that is really the expectation any brand should have,” Ahmed says.
For years, Facebook has had trust issues with the ad world. There have been lapses in how it reports metrics, data abuses and privacy slip-ups. With each transgression, Facebook has issued fresh assurances only to be met by new troubles down the road.
“I think News Feed is going to be the most challenging area,” Gunzerath says. “We can audit it.”