After being notified of the activity, Google’s spokeswoman said the company uncovered hundreds of ads coming from thousands of accounts related to the OxyBreath Pro mask. All of which have now been shut down.
The face mask marketer, however, shows how evasion tactics have evolved even as the platforms’ detection systems grows more sophisticated. On Google, OxyBreath used search ads, which don’t have images, so they avoided image recognition software that spots face masks. The marketer also didn’t use “face masks” or “coronavirus” terms in the descriptions, avoiding keyword filters.
Facebook is dealing with a similar predicament. The company has been removing these types of ads for weeks, yet new ones seem to slip through. In the middle of March, Rob Leathern, Facebook’s director of business integrity, tweeted about how the company was still refining its filters to nab bad ads. “We have been preparing for more automation catching these ads but it is not there yet,” Leathern said at the time.
On Thursday, Facebook even sued a software maker that created a program to help fraudulent websites evade ad filters.
At Twitter, a spokeswoman there said that it had not found any ads for OxyBreath Pro masks, but there were multiple accounts creating spam posts about the product. Twitter shut those down after being alerted.
On Snapchat, too, there were ads for the product, which could be a surprise to many in the ad community because the app has been largely sheltered from many of the abuses that plague its rivals. Snapchat is more of a closed app, which makes it more difficult for bad actors to garner attention, unless of course they buy ads to show their content to people.
On Snapchat, the personal video messages created by users are typically shared privately, so an organic account won’t have as many tools to reach a wide audience as it might on Twitter or Facebook. Also, Snapchat’s media section, called Discover, vets publishers to keep a lid on fake news.
Snapchat has promoted Discover as a media offering that can combat disinformation, the kind that proliferates on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. It’s true that Snapchat is more shielded from some of the worst behavior but it is clearly not free from it.
Snapchat ads for OxyBreath Pro linked to a site called “simple discount finder,” which was also registered to Novads OU.
When contacted about the ad, a Snapchat spokesman said that the company had recently implemented a ban on promoting items like personal protective equipment, which covers face masks. This advertiser would have been in violation of that new policy.
After Snapchat removed the advertiser, the website for “simple discount finder” disappeared from the internet.
COVID ad conundrum
It’s not so simple for the internet companies to craft policies around coronavirus ads, and the rules have been shifting as the crisis continues. With the pandemic lasting months, it has become nearly impossible for platforms to dictate to brands that they can’t mention the issue.
At the start of the outbreak, Twitter and Google had taken a hard line against discussing the virus in ads. They drew a sharp line that was meant to clamp down on any illicit advertisers, but it also affected major brands that were just trying to put out messages related to their efforts during the pandemic.
At the beginning of this month, Twitter eased up on its policy and began allowing major brands to craft messages related to the pandemic. Advertisers that use Twitter’s automated ad system still can’t run COVID-19-related promotions, but ones with a direct relationship to Twitter’s sales team can. Twitter highlighted campaigns from Uber, UPS and Starbucks to show how to advertise appropriately around the subject.
Google has said it is still working on its coronavirus ads policy to allow certain advertisers to market their products and services related to coronavirus. Meanwhile, Snapchat allows brands to mention coronavirus in their ads, given how central the topic is to the daily conversation.
Snapchat has banned, like the other platforms, the promotion of personal protective equipment like face masks. However, even that could cause problems for legitimate brands that want to sell products that are in high-demand. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued guidelines that people should wear face masks when out in public. Where are people supposed to buy those masks when they become readily available?
At some point, it would make sense to allow brands to promote their face masks in internet ads, says Brian Wieser, Group M’s global president of business intelligence. “The sensitivity will vary as time progresses,” Wieser says. Face mask advertising from, say, luxury brands could be permissible, “If we go into a point of time where masks are just deemed to be something that’s normal, common social behavior,” Wieser says.
Until then, the platforms will be on the lookout for the worst abuses of their services, which is something that federal authorities in the U.S. have been warning about. The Federal Trade Commission has issued alerts to consumers about marketers promoting unproven medical claims in ads. The U.S. Department of Justice has said it is watching out for fraud that could flourish around the pandemic.
Carl Settlemyer, staff attorney at the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, says that the internet platforms are the first line of defense to crack down on digital scams. If the internet companies show they are making their best effort to thwart fraudsters, then the federal government would typically not take action against Facebook, Google, Snapchat and others for bad actors that slip through the cracks.
“We expect that they will live up to their commitment to try to police their platforms for any advertising that would be potentially harmful to the public, including false deceptive advertising,” Settlemyer says.