Social networking has had a profound impact on the way we communicate. By effectively removing a lot of the borders between us, it has greatly aided the passage of free speech, a contribution that can’t be underestimated. Unfortunately, there is also a negative side to free expression: not all of the views you encounter will necessarily be palatable. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter often attract the ire of pundits for how they also facilitate the spread of harmful or abusive content.
In May 2013, gender equality activists took Facebook to task for the proliferation of pages and groups that condoned or promoted misogyny or sexual violence, demanding that the corporation take a more direct stance against this sort of offensive content. One of the most remarkable things about the campaign was the recognition of the power held by advertisers over a network that has spent years trying to define itself as a vanguard of a new type of targeted, data-driven advertising. Activists sent thousands of emails direct to brands advertising on Facebook, inspiring Nissan and other advertisers to temporarily suspend their investment until they could be assured that no controversial content was being associated with their brand – an understandable reaction, given just how much companies have invested in creating that brand.
“I think it’s actually quite interesting because this isn’t the first time something like this has happened,” says Rebecca Mahony, vice president of global marketing at international video advertising service Ebuzzing. She refers to an incident that occurred around the time of Facebook’s initial public offering (IPO). General Motors was spending approximately £10m on advertising with the network and abruptly ceased, without much reason given publicly for the decision. Despite this, rumours abounded. “Allegedly General Motors was saying it didn’t want to be displayed on its competitors pages and Facebook said no,” she explains. “So General Motors decided it was time to stop investment.”
Perhaps it isn’t surprising advertisers are so cautious about the content with which their brand is associated. “Marketers are mindful stewards of their brands, often representing years of built-up loyalty and affinity,” comments Nick Reid, MD of online video advertising company TubeMogul UK. “Given this, they rightly expect total control over where an ad is seen and, increasingly, who sees it.” Generally, this is the lure of the offering an outlet such as Facebook has; the granularity of its data means that brands can rely on the fact that their content should be shown in the right context and be seen by the right eyes. “Despite missteps at times, digital media is uniquely positioned to deliver on this,” Reid continues.
Mahony adds: “Facebook is lucky because it has so much information – it’s in a very specialised place and the targeting could be second to none.” This has helped entice marketers to the platform in droves. Unfortunately, however, an environment that is as consumer-driven as Facebook isn’t self-contained or easily controlled. “It will struggle with that because it is a social platform; people are interacting, people are conversing and sometimes conversations and content that people view can be controversial.”
And all too quickly a particularly toxic piece of content can tarnish the reputation of a brand that’s associated with it, even if that association is largely incidental. “We know this; fail consistently here and consumers will vote with their feet,” comments Ian Woolley, chief commercial officer of audience insights company Visual DNA. This means that some extra work is required to cushion brands and publishers from the negative impact of undesirable content. “We’re all incentivised to make advertising better; I think that as an industry we’ll get there,” he adds.
Mahony does not believe that the failings exhibited in this recent controversy are endemic. Instead, it’s an inevitable part of a medium still undergoing constant development. “Facebook is growing so quickly and it is changing things all the time,” she says. “I know on a weekly basis it is changing its products and its targeting – so I think it’s almost natural growing pains.”
“The need for more control is a major reason that automated buying and delivery of ads took off,” comments Reid. And there is plenty of precedent that suggests this level of control is achievable even with the kind of intensely granulated data that Facebook deals with. “The technology is certainly there,” he continues. “We are doing a great deal of work in this area to bring in viewability standards in all areas of video advertising, to make sure brands are not being associated with racy or undesirable content.”
While Facebook’s analytics and demographic information is practically second-to-none, mediums that have been on the market longer have had more time to employ techniques designed to protect advertisers and their brands. “There will be technology, which there is in online advertising and video advertising, where you’ll have negative keywords or contextual targeting coming into play,” says Mahony. “I think Facebook still has some catching up to do in that respect. But I absolutely think that it will.”
Facebook responded promptly to advertisers’ concerns over their placements on pages featuring controversial content, issuing a statement on the site on June 28 that advertising would be stripped from pages that were identified as being offensive. While this doesn’t address the wider concerns of activists, it does at least show the network is committed to protecting advertisers from incidental content that may harm their brand images. And it seems an inevitable step along the road of the maturation of a powerful advertising medium.