‘Trial and error is not appropriate’: Facebook’s issue ads policy sweeps up brands

Facebook’s new political ads policy has drawn scorn from publishers — and now a constituency more near and dear to Facebook is bothered: ad buyers.

In the wake of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Facebook has taken an extra-cautious approach for political advertising. Anyone who wants to spend money on Facebook to promote political topics must register with an official government ID, and once approved, they must mark all political ads as political.

Yet frustration has mounted since ad buyers — even executives at major media-buying agencies — have been unable to properly identify what ads need to be labeled as political. Brands’ corporate responsibility efforts, such as ads during Pride Month, have been swept up in the madness and have led to delayed campaigns. Facebook’s automated system has also erred. It’s all left buyers feeling like Facebook is just guessing and not doing enough to be transparent.

“I’ve been very clear with the people I talk to at Facebook that trial and error is not an appropriate way we should go to market because advertisers may or may not be able to get through it,” said an executive at a top global media agency. “It’s creating a lot of extra work, and I have yet to get definitions that are clear enough to provide enough guidance.”

In May, Facebook released a list of 20 issues that would be subject to its new terms that require advertisers to register as political advertisers and to properly label ads that are political. At that time, media buyers told Digiday they appreciated Facebook’s attempt to regain public trust, but were concerned about the barriers the policy would introduce. Now, media buyers are dealing with those hurdles and remain confused about what exactly is included in these 20 issues.

WeWork had been running Facebook ads promoting its support of #pride on June 20. It also ran an ad for the WeWork offices in Chicago on May 21. Both ads were archived as ads with political content and marked as “ran without a ‘Paid for by’ label.” A Facebook ad from Nestlé promoting tips on how to help veterans succeed at work received the same treatment. So did Facebook ads for insurance company Lemonade that promoted its renters insurance plans “for the price of a latte.”

WeWork declined to comment on its Facebook ads. Lemonade did not respond to a request for comment. Kate Shaw, who handles corporate communications at Nestlé, said the company has been working closely with Facebook during this process.

“As a key partner, we have engaged in a constructive dialogue with Facebook about the measures it is taking to provide more transparency to users,” Shaw said. “We are encouraged by and broadly welcome the changes it has announced and implemented to date. We will, however, look into whether any of these moves have had unintended consequences — such as the inappropriate tagging of content as ‘political’ — and share any concerns we have with Facebook.”

A Facebook spokesperson said the company has been pretty clear that it’s still working on its policy, and it will not be perfect.

“This is a first step. Certainly we don’t want to create unnecessary roadblocks for businesses — and we’re grateful when people help us discover where we’ve made errors, which is also why we have processes in place like the ability to appeal an ad. At the same time, these tools are incredibly important in helping us prevent election interference,” a different Facebook spokesperson said.

The appeals process is one way Facebook is trying to improve and account for errors in the system, the spokesperson said. After Ad Age flagged a Facebook ad paid for by Walmart about the company bringing jobs back to America, Facebook said it was inaccurately deemed political.

“The aim of this policy and authorization process is increased authenticity for political ads on Facebook,” a Facebook spokesperson emailed Ad Age. “It won’t be perfect to start — we’ll learn and evolve over time — but we think the good far outweighs the bad.”

Publishers have been critical about this new policy since it also required them to label political articles as political ads if they put paid media behind it. To publishers, the move conflated independent journalism with advertising. Following the protests, Facebook tweaked its policy to put those articles in a separate archive, but it didn’t eliminate the step.

Separately, media buyers for brands are juggling the initial registration process. Registration can take a few weeks to complete. It also requires someone on the account to send their official government ID, which some people inside brands are uncomfortable with and therefore agency executives are doing on their behalf.

Once registered, buyers need to properly mark their ads that are political, according to Facebook. Facebook will remove an ad if a buyer erroneously marks it as political or if it is political and not marked. Bloomberg reported that ads with the words “Bush” and “Clinton” are being removed even if they don’t have anything to do with the former presidents.

Buyers can request an appeal if they believe Facebook inaccurately removed an ad. Betsy Hindman, a digital marketer for business-to-business clients, said one of her Facebook ads promoting an editorial on how cities without an airline hub can attract fly-in visitors was not initially approved by Facebook’s system but was later accepted after a manual review. Her appeals process lasted a day.

For ad buyers, it’s simply not clear what is political and what isn’t to Facebook. For example, one of the 20 top-level issues in Facebook’s list is values. Another is the environment.

“There’s a lot of corporate responsibility campaigns that you wouldn’t anticipate, like Pride,” said the agency executive. “Facebook is casting a wide net, but for an advertiser, like a big retail account that supports Pride and does BOGO on shoes, we’re having to go through new processes on if and when they should mark things as political.”

Indeed, during a press event last week about the launch of the ad transparency tool, Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg said the company was opting for more transparency.

“We had a choice. We decided that our goal is transparency. We’re just erring on the side of being more transparent,” Sandberg said in response to a question on publishers’ frustrations with the policy.

While buyers at top agencies have access to Facebook representatives to share their complaints and ask about individual ads, smaller advertisers are more limited. Ads can initially be approved and run in the system for hours before they are deemed inactive.

These hiccups are just the beginning. Facebook’s system is only live in the U.S. and is rolling out to Brazil ahead of the country’s general election in October. If Facebook, a U.S.-based company, is struggling to properly identify English ads, it’s questionable how the system will perform internationally. Additionally, it remains to be seen how the issue ads will be localized and then interpreted elsewhere.

“I imagine there will be even more false positives in a place that speaks Portuguese versus English,” said the agency executive.


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