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Should Social Advertising Be Held To The Same Standards As TV?

Mary Grace Scully
Mary Grace Scully
Published: Jul. 02, 2020

The #StopHateForProfit campaign, proposed by groups such as the NAACP and Anti-Defamation League, calls for brands to boycott Facebook advertising due to the social platform’s handling - or, more precisely, mishandling - of hate speech and misinformation.

Socially conscious lifestyle brands such as The North Face and Patagonia have paused advertising on Facebook until it formally takes action to enforce hate-speech guidelines.

Now Verizon, Unilever, Starbucks and Coca-Cola are pausing spend as well, recognizing the irony that even as they’ve publicly denounced racism, their Facebook ads remain at risk of running alongside content they consider to be hateful.

Much of this boycott’s news coverage has focused on how it will impact Facebook’s bottom line. We think there’s a more important story taking shape: how social platforms have not been required to adhere to standards that have long applied to offline media companies, including television. These standards protect consumers, advertisers and publishers alike, yet digital platforms have been exempt.

They’ve been able to hide behind the claim that “we’re not a media company,” when in fact, the vast majority of their revenues are derived from advertising dollars that media companies compete vigorously to attract. It’s a double standard, and until that changes, brands increasingly will seek out higher quality, more well regulated environments that also just happen to deliver growth and audience reach.

The FCC vs The MRC

According to Reuters, Facebook announced this week it would submit itself to an audit of how it controls hate speech. The Media Rating Council (MRC), a media measurement firm, will conduct the audit to evaluate how it protects advertisers from appearing next to harmful content and the accuracy of Facebook’s reporting in certain areas.

Facebook executives also said the platform would include a new data point about the prevalence of hate speech in its Community Standards Enforcement Report, which details how the company takes down content that violates policy. Many advertisers feel this isn’t enough and that MRC involvement won’t provide the same kind of accepted, long-standing standards that the FCC sets for TV.

This is bigger than advertising, it’s a question of principle.

Again, the economic impact here is likely to be minor. Larger companies can afford to pull their Facebook ads and find alternatives elsewhere. Facebook can afford their boycott; according to Pathmatics data, only 6% of Facebook’s 2019 ad revenue came from its top 100 biggest advertisers. It would take thousands of smaller brands - especially those who use Facebook’s powerful suite of performance advertising products - to pull their budgets over a significant amount of time to put a dent in Facebook’s wallet.

Picture of a tweet that provides clarity around the purpose of the #StopHateForProfit campaign.

Instead, the boycott represents a larger frustration with the core of Facebook’s business. It is purpose-built not to be curated, but to give everyone a voice. That’s true even when those voices are reprehensible. Regulating the platform in a way that would screen all content via the same sort of standards that govern broadcast television would fundamentally change Facebook and every other social platform.

Today, users publish content to Facebook in such volumes and with such variety that even its team of 15,000 moderators and AI tools cannot scrub it of all objectionable stuff. For this reason, it’s really hard to imagine Facebook as some part user-generated content (UGC) and some part curated environment. That sounds like a product that doesn’t yet exist and may not be possible, at least as an advertising engine of the size and scope of Facebook.

To be fair, Facebook isn’t sitting on its hands. "We do not make policy changes tied to revenue pressure," wrote Carolyn Everson, Facebook’s Vice President of Global Business Group, in an email to advertisers. “We set our policies based on principles rather than business interests," she added.

Simulmedia’s CEO Dave Morgan said on CNBC’s Closing Bell this week that this is in fact a matter of principle. But the principles of brand-safe platforms like TV are very different than that of social platforms.

The question that analysts, marketers, lawmakers and Facebook should be asking is one that Morgan asked on the show: “Is it consistent with true free speech to have a platform that also promotes hate speech?”

Morgan points out that this isn’t the first time (or the last) that Facebook has made mistakes and asked for forgiveness from the advertising community. But this time, marketers might not be as generous.

“This is bigger than advertising, it's a question of principle,” said Morgan. “Sure you can point to Covid and things like that to give advertisers a little extra license to do the pull-back, and brand advertisers are only a portion of the spend of Facebook today. But I think this is really significant, it’s structural and just getting started.”

stewart schley retweets Dave Morgans appearance on closing bell

Brand Safe Mediums Offer Cost-Effective Alternatives to Facebook

“TV is the ultimate brand safe medium, and while certain prime time news shows on certain networks are arguably home to fake news and controversial-if-not-offensive opinions, advertisers can easily avoid those programs and thus not support the networks that air them. Something that is definitely not an option on Facebook,” wrote Alan Wolk on tvrev.com.

With more brands halting their Facebook investments, many marketers have pledged to redirect those dollars to places they deem safe or supportive of racial justice.

  • Nancy Smith, president of the advertising consulting firm Analytic Partners, said they are advising clients to reallocate funds. "Reallocating to other social media, potentially; reallocating to other digital publishers; reallocating to linear TV; reallocating to platforms like Hulu."
  • Digiday reports that some advertisers are already redistributing media dollars to minority community publishers. For example, GroupM is building private programmatic marketplaces of those media owners at the request of some advertisers in recent weeks. Also AT&T is working with Pod Digital Media, a multicultural podcast network, to find sponsorship opportunities for its Cricket Wireless network.
  • Morgan says he suspects emerging social platforms such as Twitch and TikTok have a chance to “step into this void and take what will be perceived as a point of higher ground on a key principled issue.”
  • Morgan also says he expects many advertisers to turn to linear TV. “TV is soft right now and has some attractive pricing. It has the chance to bring some money back.”

While the #StopHateForProfit campaign technically calls for a boycott through just the end of July, there will be no shortage of despicable content and misinformation amid continuing protests and election season. It’s up to us, the advertising community, to denounce hate, stand for justice, and vote with our dollars to demand standards for our ads.

What do you think: Should social advertising be held to the same standards as TV? Let us know by tweeting to us @simulmedia or tagging us on LinkedIn. You can also watch Morgan’s full Closing Bell interview here.