This morning, I was tipped from a PR firm letting me know that Facebook is currently in the midst of a controversy involving minors and their presence in advertising throughout the popular website. I have mixed views on this, but it’s something that marketers and publishers need to consider when they do advertising on the social network. If you advertise to minors, you ought to get a blessing from the lawyers first.
Advertising on Facebook works similarly to how Google displays ads to users in their search interface. Simply, an advertiser would create an advertisement with an image, text and a link. Then they proceed to targeting and can really narrow their ad to a very finite individual based on nearly-limitless criteria. In this process, there is a checkbox that enables the advertiser to use a viewer’s “friends” to support the ad. It increases the cost per click only marginally, and is a great way to encourage more trusted clicks.
If I liked Absolut, my friends would see that ‘Joseph Manna Likes This’. It’s pretty straight-forward. However, when minors are involved it gets sticky.
Today, minors are protected from targeted advertising on the internet with an important piece of regulatory guidelines known as COPPA. The FTC mandates that advertisers (and publishers) must gain parental consent before advertising to minors. From recollection, Xanga, the once-popular blogging network, was slapped with a huge fine because they violated COPPA.
Facebook doesn’t fall far from the tree here. Facebook does a good job ensuring brands that are restricted to minors aren’t accessed or shown to them – like alcohol, tobacco or other adult-oriented services. However, if kids like Justin Bieber (and the record company is owning his page), then where is the line drawn?
Perhaps, it’s because COPPA was never enacted thinking that the web would truly be permission-based. The same argument is being had over the Second Amendment. It’s my view that Facebook isn’t doing anything malicious; rather an oversight and a result of how people now interact with Pages and brands on Facebook.
A philosophical debate can be had over whether a Facebook Page is a product of marketing from a company – or if it’s a general interest from people. I mean, if people like Coke products, why should Facebook or any other authority interfere with expressing their patronage online? The social actions that Facebook facilitates is expressing fact, not necessarily endorsements for a brand – and their trademarked “Like” is a relationship to such pages.
Not everyone feels this way. Dale Carr, CEO of Leadbolt, a digital advertising company, suggests Facebook failed to address the issue. “Facebook is doing exactly what it should be doing: staying closed lip on the topic and lobbying child privacy laws in its own favor.” However, he wrangles with the issue at hand, “In most cases, these ‘advertisements’ are most likely not even considered advertisements, but web content revolving around a product or service.” Carr feels this is an example of how people’s online experiences are evolving — where social ads blur the lines between sharing personal information and commercial ads.“There is a fine line between sharing information and fooling users into thinking that their “friend” is endorsing a product or service, when in actuality it’s the company itself that is spreading the idea on a massive scale. The relationships between Facebook users to promote advertisers messages is akin to word of mouth advertising. If an advertiser want’s to pay for that type of communication and increase it’s pages’ or websites’ visitors it certainly doesn’t cross any lines. That is unless users are unable to see a “sponsored message” [disclosure] next to that unit on Facebook.”
For the most part, I agree. Social actions dominate the platform. Advertising is there, but isn’t the goal for users when they engage this way.
This issue can be complex, but it’s not necessarily difficult. I think this has to be addressed with common sense. Perhaps the feature could be revised (voluntarily) to exclude minors from the social actions on ads. It wouldn’t be a bad idea for Facebook to relax some of the personalization on Facebook for minors. It ripe with opportunity for abuse and Facebook can’t afford any further criticism against their privacy and role in a minor’s internet experience.
[Image credit: antonymayfield]