Facebook introduces misleading ad technique


First, brands started sneaking advertising messages into online publications disguised as editorial content, to trick consumers into reading them. Now, according to a June 7 report, Facebook has taken that misleading process one step further.

“In a controversial move,” writes US business editor Katherine Rushton in the (UK) Telegraph, “the social network will standardise [sic] its adverts, blurring the boundary between paid-for content and user posts…The only indicator will be the word ‘sponsored’ which will appear in small grey print below.”

In other words, they’re disguising ads to look like posts and updates from your friends.

New medium, old sleaze

While the medium is new, the sleaze isn’t. If you don’t believe that, just look in your mailbox.

Ever since the early days of direct mail, advertisers who couldn’t bother to create intrinsically interesting messages have been disguising their sell – as letters that appear to come from the government, for example – to con consumers into opening the envelope.

It’s the same kind of thinking that produced ads disguised as newspaper or magazine articles (i.e., advertorials) and 30- to 120-minute-long commercials disguised as television programs (i.e., infomercials). But at least those purported to come from the medium, not from your friends.

‘Improving’ the user experience?

For about 18 months, Facebook has been offering advertisers the opportunity of concealing their messages in users’ posts. The Telegraph’s digital editor, Emma Barnett, described how that works:

This morning when I clicked on a photo of a friend’s baby on Facebook, next to it, on the left hand side, was a ‘sponsored story’, (read advert) which told me that another chum ‘likes’ the band ‘Stooshe’. I clicked on a different picture of her baby girl playing happily in the snow, and another sponsored story appeared. This time a different friend was ‘liking’ a service called Whipcar.

The two don’t mix and having alerted my friend to the fact that her child is now being advertised against, she has since removed the photographs.

The reason why my friend felt so uncomfortable to put photos of her baby on Facebook in the first place, is because up until now, she felt she was only sharing them with all of her friends. [But] adding sponsored stories…takes away the personal and friendly feel of the site. It is invasive, as many people have been tweeting.

It suddenly turns the subject of the photo into product.

But now, even if advertisers don’t want to sneak their messages in disguised as personal posts, Facebook will automatically do it for them.

“It will automatically turn as many adverts as possible into so-called ‘sponsored stories,” Rushton explains, “which aim to replicate the effect of word-of-mouth marketing online.”

“We will automatically add social context to boost performance,” Facebook product manager Fidji Simo confirmed. “We know social enhances ad resonance; people are influenced by this type of word-of-mouth marketing.”

But only if they let themselves be fooled.

Facebook claims that by making ads not stand out visually and by camouflaging them as posts instead, they’ll “improve the user experience.” Oh, and by the way, get advertisers more attention. “They are not just competing with other businesses,” a spokesman said. “They are competing with life. People are getting married. People are having babies.” And now people are being suckered by ads masquerading as real-life messages.

Coming to a smartphone near you

Facebook will be rolling out its misleading ad format step by step, with worldwide completion scheduled for year’s end.

But if comments to the Telegraph article are any guide, they’ll be meeting with vehement opposition long before then. None was complimentary, one was neutral, and the rest were skeptical, if not hostile:

  • “‘A Facebook spokesman said making adverts less obtrusive would improve the user experience…’ Is he aware the best way to improve the user experience is to leave the adverts out altogether[?] I’d fire this guy.”
  • “Even worse[,] Facebook lets advert companies hack multiple accounts so that the ads are posted as if by the Facebook user.”
  • “I use Facebook rarely but have noticed in recent months this happening. It’s starting to put me off using the site now – they’re killing their golden goose slowly but surely. No loss in my life.”
  • “They’re killing the product. [F]acebook is on the way to oblivion.

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