Has Facebook just shot itself in the foot?

Introduction

From time to time organizations involved in marketing communications shoot themselves in the foot. When scrutinized by government, they downplay the impact of their marketing and advertising, but to those responsible for managing marketing and advertising campaigns, they deliver quite a different message.

Tobacco and Alcohol Industry

For example, tobacco companies have long argued that their marketing efforts do not increase the overall demand for tobacco products and have no impact on the initiation of tobacco use among young people; rather, they argue, they are competing with other companies for market share. It is ironic that for decades the tobacco industry that has spent millions on marketing including product design, packaging, pricing, distribution, product placement, advertising, and a variety of promotional activities continually makes the case to government and health organizations that their marketing is only effective in consumers changing brands.

In contrast, the weight of the evidence from extensive and increasingly sophisticated research conducted over the past few decades shows that the industry’s marketing activities have been a key factor in leading young people to take up tobacco, keeping some users from quitting, and achieving greater consumption among users (). This growing evidence has helped to spur a variety of policy interventions aimed at reducing the influence of marketing on tobacco initiation and consumption by the tobacco companies, from ban on broadcast advertising to the constraints of marketing practices put in place by many countries.

The alcohol industry, especially the brewers, that are quite involved with lifestyle advertising and promotion also claim there’s “no” or “very little” link between alcohol advertising and alcohol misuse by consumers, including influencing underage drinkers.

Recent research in Australia showing children exposed to thousands of alcohol advertisements during sport broadcasts has raised concerns about the influence of alcohol advertising on youth drinking habits.

The brewers claim that their advertising objective is “to encourage the adult consumer to switch brand, win market share from competitors and encourage adult consumers to trade up to higher value brands”.  No question that is part of their objective but research indicates that their marketing has impact on both consumption and influencing underage drinkers. Again, we have an industry that spends many millions of dollars on all forms of marketing communications, especially advertising and sponsorship, but continually downplays the effectiveness of what they do when confronted by government and health/addiction agencies and organizations.

A large body of research conducted in different countries over a long period of time shows exposure to alcohol advertising is associated with the age when drinking commences, the volume and frequency of drinking, and attitudes to alcohol. The research indicates these links become more pronounced as exposure to advertising increases.

Experts state more research is needed to determine the complexities of the relationship between alcohol advertising and drinking habits, but the weight of evidence clearly indicates that there is a significant level of risk attached to advertising exposure and  youth drinking. http://www.abc.net.au/news/factcheck/2015-10-02/fact-check-alcohol-advertising-and-misuse-children/6729232

Facebook’s Dilemma

Colin Horgan in a recent article in Maclean’s Magazine titled Is Facebook a ‘con’ or not?  points out that in trying to downplay the impact of Russian-planted divisive political posts on its platform, Facebook prompts questions about its business model.

Facebook (along with Twitter and Google) sent a representative to testify before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism. The topic at hand was the possible Russian influence during the 2016 U.S. presidential election via misinformation spread online. For Facebook, that meant fraudulent posts disseminated on its platform. And, in describing the impact of that misinformation, Facebook may have unwittingly forced a serious question about its entire business model.

In its written statement presented to the committee, Facebook added context to its earlier revelations that a Russian troll farm, the Internet Research Agency, had spent $100,000 on roughly 3,000 ads that focused on “amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum — touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights.” According to CNN, Facebook’s testimony  clarified that “29 million people were served content directly from the Internet Research Agency, and that after sharing among users is accounted for, a total of ‘approximately 126 million people’ may have seen it.”

However, Facebook also sought to downplay the implications of that figure — roughly the same total number of people who voted in the 2016 election.

“This equals about four-thousandths of one percent (0.004%) of content in News Feed, or approximately 1 out of 23,000 pieces of content,” Facebook said in its statement. “Put another way, if each of these posts were a commercial on television, you’d have to watch more than 600 hours of television to see something from the Internet Research Agency (IRA).” http://www.macleans.ca/society/technology/the-walls-are-closing-in-on-facebook/

The issue is probably less about how many people in total may have seen material generated or paid for by foreign influencers, but rather how many users were exposed repeatedly to similar content once they had initially engaged with a fraudulent post.

So what Facebook is saying is – it’s the repetition for each user that counts, not the overall percentage of Russian posts that were present across the entire platform.

So, has Facebook shot itself in the foot?  Facebook boasts that by using its platform and accessing people based on its data - which is, by all accounts, quite rich  – marketers and advertisers can target their messages effectively. Yet, squaring that with how little impact Facebook suggests the Internet Research Agency’s posts had on users prompts an interesting quandary.

As Dylan Byers at CNN tweeted: FACEBOOK timeline: – didn’t happen – happened, but was small – OK, semi-big – OK, it reached 126 million, but no evidence it influenced them.

Pithy though that assessment may be, Facebook arguing that $100,000 worth of ads has little effect on their intended targets implies that its vaunted targeting abilities might not amount to much. Which should be a wake-up call for all marketers and advertisers.

Colin Horgan reports that In a talk she delivered last month at TEDGlobal in New York City, techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufecki summarized the effects algorithms are having on our lives. In doing so, she inadvertently summarized the current dilemma: “Either Facebook is a giant con of a half trillion dollars and ads don’t work on the site – that it doesn’t work as a persuasion architecture — or its power of influence is of great concern. It’s either one or the other.” http://www.macleans.ca/society/is-facebook-a-con-or-not/

So, here we have a company that makes millions of dollars selling advertising on their social media vehicle downplaying their impact when faced by government authorities. Interesting situation. Let me know what you think?

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