Ads that cry “fire!” in a crowded theater

January 10th, 2020 | Laura Ziemer

The New York Times this week reported that Facebook would hold firm on its stance to not only allow political ads during the 2020 election season but also not police these ads for lies. Facebook now stands in stark contrast to both other social media giants (Twitter) and online advertisers (Google, Spotify), who have limited targeting or altogether banned any political advertising.

Marketers and ad networks do not have an obligation to act ethically, but those who strive to engage with authenticity are better poised to win the hearts and minds of consumers. The danger and fear in Facebook’s choice is, unfortunately, a reflection of the quality of the ads observed in the 2016 and 2018 elections. What could have been curated and policied to connect consumers with information that would help inform their vote instead devolved into a native editorial golem that left the most savvy and ad-aware among us wondering what was real.  

Gen Z and Millennials are more aware of ads; they expect them. Exposure is a day-to-day reality, and their brains are trained to process what they want and ignore what they don’t. Platforms like Facebook more regularly use zero-party data to ensure the ad experience is both relevant to the viewer, and provide feedback to the advertiser on the quality of the ad. Most marketers would revel at this real-time feedback loop. Political advertisers perpetrating propaganda or “lies” in ad copy will care less if the ad were relevant, seen too frequently, or offensive. 

Ad-aware consumers will use Facebook’s feedback tools to voice their concerns with questionable political ad content. Facebook’s obligation is to the naive consumer who thinks they are engaging with a factual, editorial piece. The feedback button won’t matter if the viewer doesn’t know it’s an ad, or if they believe any ads posted must be true. 

I voice all this criticism as a disciple of an audience-first marketing strategy. Data affords us as marketers so much opportunity to identify the right consumers for our products and solutions; and the ability to do so only fosters greater engagement. Marketers and platforms who wield this data to influence have a great responsibility. While we know the Instagram ad I just got touting the “best boots for me” are not, factually, the best boots for me, certain sectors bare a stronger obligation to do good with their data than others. 

Facebook’s goals for its users are not dissimilar from Twitter – it’s a forum where we can all connect, explore and debate. If Facebook were to employ stronger policing of political ad authenticity, it would do more to legitimize this platform as a place for groups to connect and debate the upcoming elections. For example, the absence of political ads on Twitter will do more to further the perception of the authenticity of other ad content viewed on Twitter. Consumers so desperately crave authentic connections – not only with each other but with brands. 

Facebook has an opportunity to true the quality ship of its advertisers’ political content, and ensure zero-party feedback is used to police and eject those acting irresponsibility. Twitter CEO and co-founder Jack Dorsey showed us we can all be a little better: Let’s rise to the occasion and do so.

Laura Ziemer

Laura Ziemer

Laura Ziemer is Mintel's Associate Vice President of Marketing Intelligence. Laura uses Mintel's marketing intelligence data to explore custom questions for clients, and provide concrete recommendations that steer them toward highly incremental growth.