The technocrat response to #FBrape won't wash

Brand ads have been appearing on Facebook pages that endorse rape. That’s a fact, and the response that they “target people, not pages” is an irrelevant cop-out.


The controversy around brands’ advertising appearing on user-generated pages that encourage violence towards women is still escalating. And it will continue to do so until all parties - Facebook chief among them - understand that users don’t care how an ad ended up on a page. They only care that it did.

That message seems to have got through to a number of UK advertisers, among them Nationwide and Nissan, who say they have withdrawn business from Facebook after receiving criticism.

The problem has risen to prominence over the past week, since the Everyday Sexism Project and campaigning website Women, Action and the Media drew attention to it via a hashtag on Twitter, #FBrape. The content they have highlighted is sickening in the most literal sense - not a word that Marketing Week tends to overuse.

There is no suggestion that either Facebook or any of the brands involved support the offensive content, but it’s worrying if they think it’s enough to respond to criticism of the placement of ads next to it with a technical argument. Emphasising that advertising is targeted according to the user’s data rather than what’s on the page will only be seen by most consumers as an abdication of responsibility.

It seems likely that the line about targeting “people, not pages” is a co-ordinated one, since advertisers responding to consumers on Twitter have used that uniformly as their reply. But as Unilever skincare brand Dove has indicated in its subsequent promise to resolve this issue “aggressively” with Facebook, marketers at the affected brands are realising that the targeting is the problem, not the defence.

And therein lies the biggest problem for Facebook. It has built an advertising model that could potentially lead to ads appearing against almost anything, provided the content has survived Facebook’s community standards, which the pages highlighted by the #FBrape campaign originally did.

There will always be an argument that Facebook and the web more widely shouldn’t censor controversial content, however objectionable. But Facebook has already made that moot in this case by taking down a number of pages.

Whether swift removals are enough to stem the immediate tide of bad publicity remains to be seen, but more pages of a similar kind could spring up just as fast, with many advertisers vulnerable to showing up next to them. That will worry anyone advertising on Facebook in future.

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