Companies on a give-back mission caught in a Facebook advertising ban
What do a small company selling packaged socks for homeless youth and a start-up making wristbands made from life jackets once worn by refugees have to do with the spread of misinformation during the presidential election season?
Nothing, thought the entrepreneurs who started them, until Facebook notified them that their ads were being withdrawn because they fell into a “social issue, election, or politics” category that the site was blocking.
The social media giant announced last week that it would extend the ban on certain ads during the election to prevent the spread of false information. The ban has ensnared a number of socially motivated companies with no direct link to party politics.
Companies dealing with issues such as hunger, the environment and immigration, many of which rely heavily on social media to attract customers to their websites, have abruptly cut their access.
“We’re just selling socks and trying to do something good,” said Sam Harper, 27, co-founder of Hippy Feet, a Minneapolis company that employs homeless youth. “We’re not trying to push a specific agenda on homelessness and unemployment.”
“Facebook is thinking of the political campaigns and we’re doing collateral damage,” said Harper.
The entrepreneurs say they don’t allow Facebook to rule out falsehoods and misleading content. But they claim it is unfair for their charities to be lumped together with politically motivated advertisers. With the crucial holiday season approaching, some fear the ban, which was extended for another month on November 11, could mean its downfall.
In the run-up to the 2016 elections, fraudulent and distorted information disseminated by Russian automated accounts and others on social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and YouTube was intended to influence voters. Some of the accounts generated posts on social issues such as civil and women’s rights that proved divisive.
During this election cycle, in the face of growing pressure to improve monitoring of ads, Facebook and several other platforms blocked new political ads before election day and extended the suspension during the subsequent counting of the contested votes.
“The temporary commercial break for political and social issues in the US continues as part of our ongoing efforts to protect the elections,” the company said last week when it announced the extension. “Advertisers can expect this to take another month, although there may be an option to resume these ads sooner.”
Sarah Schiff, a product manager at Facebook, said the company had made “tough decisions” to temporarily suspend ads on not only politics and elections, but many social issues as well, “to protect the integrity of the elections.”
“We know this can be disappointing, but we encourage companies to run ads on other topics and reach people during this time through their organic posts and tools like fundraisers on Facebook and Instagram,” Ms. Schiff said in a statement.
The company said business owners who believed their ads were mislabelled could request a re-examination, either through an automated process or through a personal review.
“Enforcement is not perfect, but we improve over time,” the statement said.
Advertising policy has so far thrown a wide net.
“Since you have to do this on a massive scale, you can’t make exceptions on a regular basis,” says Jessica Alter, co-founder of Tech for Campaigns, a nonprofit group that advises democratic campaigns on their social media advertising strategy. “Organizations and companies that want to do good are wrongly disadvantaged.”
“If you have a blanket ban, that is the unintended consequence,” added Ms. Alter, who said she did not blame Facebook. “Is advertising for mindfulness political? Yoga?”
Advertising on Facebook is a lifeline for Epimonia, a Minneapolis-based company that makes and sells wristbands and other items from discarded life jackets worn by refugees fleeing to Europe on flimsy boats.
The company spends several thousand dollars annually promoting on Facebook, which is aimed at users who have a positive attitude towards refugees based on the interests listed on their profiles. When an Epimonia ad appears, those who click on it will be directed to the company’s website.
“I’ve been advertising on Facebook for years. It is very frustrating for me to be divided into groups that are doing false advertising for political reasons, ”said Mohamed Malim, 24, a Somali-American who started the company three years ago with a $ 2,000 remainder from college Scholarship.
Epimonia’s ads were put on hold in late October when Facebook first announced a week-long block on certain ads. They have not returned since then, said Mr Malim, who appealed the decision several times, to no avail.
“If we can’t run ads before the holidays, we could go out of business,” said Mr Malim, who employs a handful of refugees to make bracelets, hats and T-shirts.
Three of the banned Epimonia ads stated that buying a bracelet would help refugees start a new life in the United States. The advertisements also state that a portion of the proceeds will be used for charity.
“The ads were approved, but paused due to a blocking period,” Facebook told the company. “All US issues, election and political ads have been temporarily suspended.”
Facebook didn’t say what was wrong with the ads, but Mr Malim said he assumed that “since we talk about refugees in our brand communications, Facebook sees us as political advertisers”.
Given the uncertainty, he has decided to postpone the launch of a new clothing line planned for next week. “If we continue to have this problem, it will be difficult for us to sell and donate to charities,” said Malim.
Even before the election, Facebook required companies with a social agenda to include a disclaimer in their ads. But companies and advertising agencies that run ads for some of them have reported that Facebook has become more aggressive in the past few weeks to completely opt out of ads.
One of the targeted companies was the Bridgewater Candle Company, which donates money from every scented candle it sells to orphans in Haiti, India and other countries through a Christian nonprofit group. The slogan is: “Light a candle, feed a child”.
On November 4, Facebook informed the company that an ad promoting its mission had been suspended. “The simplest statement, ‘We deliver three meals with every candle in a jar,’ triggered their removal,” said Kelly Barter, the company’s marketing manager in Spartanburg, SC. “Facebook regards our giveback mission as a social issue.”
It was the first time since the candle maker began advertising on the platform three years ago that an approved ad was drawn. It took a week back and forth communicating with Facebook to revive it.
“Closing down is problematic for an e-commerce company trying to grow sales and raise awareness,” said Ms. Barter. “Fortunately, we were able to overcome the roadblock.”
Blueland, which sells refillable and reusable cleaning products, is not asking its customers to donate to environmental causes. But the e-commerce site markets its soap, detergent, and dishwasher tablets as a “gift to you and the planet” as the products help eliminate environmentally harmful plastic containers.
On this basis, Facebook recently banned a Blueland ad that talked about how its reusable hand soap prevents single-use plastic bottles from washing up in the oceans and ending up in landfills. Facebook then checked the ad at Blueland’s request and placed it without any changes.
“We were able to correct this, but it wasn’t the best time to go into the holiday season,” said Gina Pak, the company’s chief marketing officer.
Ms. Pak said she agreed with Facebook’s efforts to address “big, important issues” during the election but suggested that it was “disruptive” to remove ads.
Hippy Feet, who sells crazy, colorful socks with music-centric names like Sunset Lovers, Fleetwoods, and Joplins, is committed to helping homeless teenagers and young adults by hiring them on a part-time basis to fulfill orders and package, To carry out screen printing and embroidery.
On the eve of the election, Facebook has informed Hippy Feet several times that its ads violate advertising guidelines, according to a message from the company.
“Their algorithms see words like homelessness and decide we’re political,” said Harper, who founded Hippy Feet with a friend four years ago.
The company is relying more than ever on Facebook advertising to boost its online sales, as the coronavirus pandemic has, as usual, prevented sales at Christmas markets and bazaars. The company traditionally generates around 40 percent of its sales during the holidays, when it also employs most of the homeless young people at the location.
“We’re a little nervous and unsure of where things are going,” said Harper. “It makes us question the safety and feasibility of our actions when we are affected by something like an election.”
Following discussions between Hippy Feet and Facebook, some of the ads on the platform were revived late last week; others remain disabled.
“We cannot be angry with the intentions of politics. It’s supposed to make Facebook and the world safer, ”said Harper. “We just landed on the wrong end of the stick.”