The Moral Dilemma of Facebook Advertising
By Bryan Noguchi
Ideas Collide takes pride in the way we give back to our communities. As such, we try to make sure our business practices, our problem-solving strategies and our client solutions also reflect our commitment to ethics, morals and social obligations.
We are a forward-thinking digital agency, so at some point, we were bound to confront this question: Is it ethical to advertise on Facebook/Meta?
The short answer: probably not.
So, let’s talk about the consequences, and how we find alternatives to remain ethical.
Don’t Be Evil
Many have probably forgotten, but way back in the day, when Google was new (and long before they became Alphabet), they took pride in a little mantra that engineer Amit Patel famously penned in the corner of conference room whiteboard: “Don’t be evil.” It became the core of the company’s code of conduct, and while it’s been relegated to the very end of said code, it did have an 18-year run.
The point is that companies get big. So big, in fact, that even adhering to a simple three-word mantra becomes effectively impossible. Let’s face it, Google can’t control the fact that terrorists use their maps to plan attacks or that those same terrorists might communicate with one another via Gmail. Google can’t control the fact that a person with nefarious intentions searches online for explosives or poison gas recipes. Yet we map and email and search with these same products every day without a care for our fractional complicity in these hypothetical crimes.
Enter Facebook/Meta — a platform that never even bothered to disavow evil in the first place. How accountable can or should we expect them to be?
On the surface, it seems to have been well documented by Facebook/Meta itself that Instagram harms teenage girls. Last year they even had to rebut their own research on the matter. While most agreed the research was inconclusive and the subject matter was quite nuanced, what’s most concerning is the aftermath. No cohesive plan to address this issue — to prove or disprove it conclusively — ever emerged. Like tobacco and fossil fuel companies, I get the sense that Facebook/Meta is contentedly sitting back waiting for governments to prove their case. The harm to adults globally is obvious, even if we’re still discovering precisely how.
Data and Democracy
Anyone remember their Federalist Papers? Fed 10: “Factions.”
Two hundred-plus years ago, our Founding Fathers knew that base human nature was pretty much incongruous with civil society. And to a very great extent, they were counting on physical distance to keep fringy but like-minded groups apart and mostly disenfranchised. (In other words, “we’ll dilute our lunatics over a wide area so they’ll never have a shot at power.”) While this sounds (and is, strictly speaking) undemocratic, this was a foundational argument for a large republic.
While the internet and social media have accelerated modern-day factions, personal data has fueled its engine. As the largest social media platform, Facebook has turned out to be one of the richest sources of personal data, if not the richest. This is why it has been implicated, via its association with Cambridge Analytica, in the manipulation of voters in elections across at least 60 countries. Many of these elections have bred civil unrest and economic turmoil.
In many ways, Facebook’s ultimate defense would be the same argument the gun lobby uses: ____ doesn’t kill people, people kill people. It’s arguably not fair to blame the tool or the toolmaker.
Now, whether you believe that argument or not, it’s important to acknowledge that in an ethical, moral society, right or wrong is not absolution. It ultimately boils down to:
- What Facebook knows about how their platform is misused?
- What they’ve done to curb this?
And the answers are dishearteningly, “apparently a lot” and “apparently not much.”
Does Facebook harm our children? Does it undermine democracy, and leverage our personal data against us? Yes, and they know it. If we put advertising dollars toward these efforts while also believing these platforms cause real harm, it makes us partially responsible for the problem.
Everyone is Responsible
All social media platforms are morally and ethically imperfect. It doesn’t take much to find fault in nearly every platform. Facebook is in my crosshairs because it’s one of the largest media companies and has also been among the least capable of getting its own house in order (anyone remember Facebook Beacon?). My problem is the same as their problem: I have knowledge that I’m currently not acting upon. It’s not business, it’s personal. If it were just business, the decision would be easy — Facebook/Meta properties are cheap, efficient, and effective, and their alternatives are equally fraught with potential controversy.
Many small businesses and genuinely good people rely upon Facebook advertising to survive, succeed, and prosper. But I work for an agency whose foundational values don’t align with Facebook/Meta’s actions. That means we have a responsibility to address this.
What Do We Do?
“I wanna bite the hand that feeds me / I wanna bite that hand so badly”
Elvis Costello, “Radio Radio”
I think we know that boycotting Facebook, while effective at grabbing headlines, is largely ineffectual — especially if we’re trying to hurt its revenue somehow.
Now, the press does not hang on my every word. My reach on a good day is a little over zero, so when I ask entire industries to do something, I realize nothing will probably happen. But I do think the best course of action is for our entire industry and allied ecosystems to try to send a message, rather than simply saying, “I reject this platform and am taking my business elsewhere.”
I propose a global “Quiet Week” where all advertisers agree to halt all paid social advertising, and that the platforms themselves also agree to silence their ad streams and the algorithms that serve them.
The idea is two-fold:
- People should know what their feeds look like when they’re not cluttered with paid messaging and when algorithms aren’t aggressively gaming users to stay on site to see those messages. Isn’t this what these platforms were supposed to be in the first place? Positive connection with real people and ideas?
- Brands should learn what these ads do or do not contribute to their business goals. Are we addicted to its effectiveness or merely to the appearance of its effectiveness?
Additionally, I think platforms should surrender one week’s worth of revenue — (at most) 1/52nd of their income — to Quiet Week. I’m not proposing Quiet Week for Christmastime or Presidents’ Day Weekend, so it won’t be the biggest revenue hit ever. They’re not in this just for the money, right? They’re dedicated to doing good? Then prove it.
For advertisers, this is an opportunity to test other tactics without fear that competitors are going to muscle in on the social space. You want to dial up your influencer marketing? Do it that week. Want to see if streaming audio can help you? Test it that week. A major point of Quiet Week is to find out what those social ad dollars really do for you, and to see if they are best spent elsewhere. If paid social advertising is the best thing for you, well, Quiet Week may prove it, and now you’ve got an extra week’s budget to put there for the holidays or Back to School.
The Little Ideas
What can we mere mortal advertisers and marketers do?
The first thing is step back and see if your company’s values align with what you know about Facebook. Big brands that have done this concluded that these values don’t match up with their own, and as a result they don’t advertise on Facebook. The most notable example I can think of is the cosmetics company Lush, who concluded that all social media is harmful to Lush’s core audiences. Lush CEO Mark Constantine commented, “I’ve spent all my life avoiding putting harmful ingredients in my products. There is now overwhelming evidence we are being put at risk when using social media. I’m not willing to expose my customers to this harm, so it’s time to take it out of the mix.”
Lush pulled the plug on their entire social media presence — paid and owned. Now, you might not need to take it that far. Maybe you simply stop directly feeding money into the platforms. Maybe you invest directly in the content makers and influencers who rely on these platforms and their audiences. Maybe we invest in the content that should drive social media’s success in the first place.
Refine and revalue your advertising objectives — really dig in on what constitutes success. I believe that maybe half of all paid social advertisers misjudge what advertising effectiveness really is on these platforms. If your primary KPIs are “clicks” or “CPC” I have some news for you: These are measures of creative unit efficacy, not of advertising success.
I’d also challenge you to begin discarding any success metrics that rely completely on cookie-based data — that’s going away anyhow, but these metrics likely only show your ability to reach and tag vast swaths of people who eventually reach your site. Its causal relationship is questionable without understanding ad exposure frequency and exercising the ability to control it.
Find substitutes. The challenge here is pretty straightforward: Facebook’s strength is affordable reach. Where else can you get that? Can you assemble efficient reach from multiple tactics? As Facebook’s targeting is increasingly handicapped by iOS updates and governmental regulation, consider how unique your core target actually is. Maybe big reach isn’t what you need after all.
The answers here aren’t going to be easy or pretty. I just know deep down that we have to instigate change, even if our part is microscopically small.
I’m putting this out there to all my clients: “Are you comfortable advertising on Facebook?” If you are, great. If you’re not, then we really should sit down and discuss how to invest your budgets.