It was fascinating to see Facebook plastered all of over the UK mainstream media this weekend, albeit for the wrong reasons. The headline news was that a number of companies -- including First Direct, Vodafone, Virgin Media, Halifax, AA, and Prudential -- had pulled advertising from the social news site, following the discovery that their brands were sitting alongside the profile pages for far-right groups, including the British National Party (BNP). Following which, were television discussions and newspaper articles featuring various representatives and pundits from the media, discussing the risks associated with advertising on User-Generated Content sites like Facebook, and what, if anything, those sites could do to make life easier for advertisers.
Since the advertising on Facebook is mostly automated, it seems that brands can't currently dictate which users their ads appear alongside. The only choice is to either take the risk or pull the campaign completely, which is what a number of companies have done. Interestingly, Mike Butcher, over at tbites, did some research on Facebook on Sunday afternoon, and noted that advertising was still appearing alongside far-right and racist groups. I did the same today, and spotted a Weight Watchers ad appearing on the BNP's profile page. Left with only two choices, some brands are still willing to take their chances.
However, the biggest surprise isn't that this has happened, spawning a classic media moral panic, but that it hasn't happened sooner. I remember attending a conference on new media almost two years ago, and in a panel that included somebody high up from MySpace, the issue of brands being associated with undesirable UGC was raised ad nauseam. It wasn't a problem, said the MySpace rep, as the benefits of reaching certain key demographics, outweighed the downside.
Moving forward, I think Facebook et al. will need to come up with some kind of mechanism to give advertisers an easy opt-out from certain content on the site. How they'll do this, bearing in mind the millions of profile pages and user groups, I'm not so sure. But in the end, if Facebook, MySpace, YouTube etc, remain as the places where the action is at, advertisers will have to find a way to become comfortable working with the new medium.