Will Brands Change Facebook? Unlikely

At a Lisbon conference this week, The World Federation of Advertisers said that brands have a moral obligation to help pressure social media platforms into blocking “dangerous and hateful content” by withholding ad spending. 

“Brands and platforms must assume a higher level of responsibility to ensure these online environments are forces for good, not conflict or violence,” said Raja Rajamannar, Chief Marketing and Communications Officer at Mastercard and WFA’s president.

I agree that nothing else short of massive government intervention will incent the Facebooks and YouTubes of this world to block such content more than the loss of a significant amount of ad spending. But it’s hard to imagine a world where this will happen. 

Over the past few years, there have been dozens — if not scores — of revelations about problems with social media advertising, especially on Facebook. These have ranged from inaccuracies with ad reporting metrics to “likes” and follows from bots, spammers and scammers to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the fake news ads from Russia — and, most recently, the New Zealand video.



Yet Facebook’s 2018 fourth-quarter earnings report for 2018 showed ad profits have not really suffered, with advertising revenue of $16.6 billion for the final quarter of last year, up 30% year-over-year (including Instagram).

This means Facebook’s advertising works sufficiently well enough — in spite of its problems — to keep marketers excited to spend their dollars there. As has been proven time and again, if something works, they will keep spending, if only for competitive reasons. 

Over the years, when brands got pissed off at media outlets (like Newsweek, where I grew up) they would cancel their ad schedules, but almost inevitably return because the lack of exposure was costing them sales. Meanwhile, the editors routinely did nothing in response to advertiser complaints other than to remind them that what happened on the state side of the business was not going to influence the church side. (Although to be honest, as the economics of publishing dissolved into chaos, the wall between church and state crumbled and brought us abortions like sponsored content.)

So my question is, what brand is going to be the first to step up and spank Facebook? P&G gave it a little $200 million smack in 2018  -- not for being poor keepers of moral guidelines (although P&G had clear issues with some YouTube content), but because the brand found its spending had been largely wasteful. Yet P&G still spends in the walled garden.

When they think it's in their best interests, brands drop sponsorships of shows where people have said clearly offensive things, issuing self-serving press releases or Twitter posts about how terrible the offensive utterance was and how they can no longer support that kind of hate or un-PC behavior. 

They make less of a big deal when they resume as sponsors a while later.

It seems the big challenge is for the ad industry to arrive at a consensus of what is unacceptable behavior from Facebook. They have overlooked fraud and inappropriate content for years. As long as they are getting a nice ROI on their Facebook ad spend, I do not envision the brands of this world holding hands in solidarity to force Facebook into some sort of compliance.  

The world of free-market competition just doesn’t seem to work that way.

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