Forget fake news. Facebook needs to do something about fake ads
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Forget fake news. Facebook needs to do something about fake ads


Patrick Stewart is just fine. I looked at his Twitter. He’s happy and healthy and staring in a meh Emoji Movie.

I did my spot check shortly after seeing disturbing ad on Facebook. It inferred that something had happened to one of the world’s most beloved actors.

Perhaps you’ve seen these Facebook ads, the cryptic, often misleading images and text that sit neatly in the right rail of your desktop Facebook, right next to your newsfeed. Facebook calls the area “Sponsored,” so you know they’re ads.

Even so, the tricks the advertisers use to make you click are misleading at best, and dishonest at worst.

The ad that made me momentarily question the well-being of Professor X featured an photo of Stewart and his wife, Sunny Ozell. Beneath the image were these exact words:

 Goodbye at 78

griphand,com

“His Wife Never Imagined This Day Would Come So Soon. He Was Found Und…”

My logical brain knew this was an ad, and I happen to know that Stewart is 77, not 78. And yet, I felt a pang of concern as my mind auto-completed the sentence fragment. What if this goofball site, Griphand, was piggy backpacking on a real tragedy?

When ad ad and the product its promoting have literally nothing to do with each other. Actual Facebook ad is on the left and actual crappy web site is on the right.

When ad ad and the product its promoting have literally nothing to do with each other. Actual Facebook ad is on the left and actual crappy web site is on the right.

Image: Facebook/gripahand/composite

That was unlikely, but I was still curious, What sort of fake story had this advertiser concocted about the British Thespian and how would it work to promote this business? This was an ad, after all.

The site I landed on dropped all pretense; no picture of Stewart or mention of the distraught wife. Instead, I found a dismal Web site promoting some sort of strength-training regimen built by Kevin Jacobs, “an Austrian weight loss and fitness blogger.” I looked all over Facebook, Twitter and the web for further evidence of Jacobs, but could find none.

Bait and switch in Internet-based advertising is nothing new (it’s not new in the real world, either), but considering all the difficultly Facebook has had with fake news over the last 12 months, you’d think the’d police this stuff a little better.

In that same Sponsored space I also noticed a link at the top to “Create an ad.” That’s right, anyone can create an ad on Facebook. Not surprising when you consider that advertising makes up more than 90% of all of Facebook’s revenue.

Setting up your own ad, with your own nonsensical art and text, is easy!

Setting up your own ad, with your own nonsensical art and text, is easy!

Image: facebook

The social network’s built an excellent, comprehensive ad-management system to guide you through ad creation. It starts by asking you about your marketing objective, broadly characterized by three umbrella goals: Awareness, Consideration, Reach, and Conversion. Each breaks down into more specific goals like “Brand awareness” and “Store visits.”

Facebook also puts the ad program within reach of anyone, letting you set your daily budget as low as $5 a day. 

It’s all so efficient and professional, kind of a reverse mirror image of most of the ads I see in the Sponsored” section.

Facebook does include an Ad Review Process. From the Facebook Advertising Policy Page:

Before ads show up on Facebook or Instagram, they’re reviewed to make sure they meet our Advertising Policies. Typically most ads are reviewed within 24 hours, although in some cases it may take longer.

Among the Prohibited Content is, you guess it, “Misleading or False Content:”

Ads must not contain deceptive, false, or misleading content, including deceptive claims, offers, or business practices.

To be fair, the Grip A Hand ad skirts these rules by saying, basically, nothing. It never mentions Stewart by name, it never says he died. It never makes any promises. It does its work through inference. You see it, read it and think, “Wait, what?”

That, I guess, is enough to generate a click.

On the other hand, there’s no way Grip A Hand got permission to use Stewart’s photo. Honestly, if I were on the Facebook ad review team and saw that ad, I would’ve been like, “Hey, wait a minute,” and rejected it. 

Facebook sent me this statement via email:

Misinformation and hoaxes of any kind harm our community. We take action when we discover advertisers attempting to serve misleading links to people. In this case, the advertiser maliciously circumvented our advertising review process. In subsequent reviews we identified the advertiser and disabled their ads and account.– Tom Channick, Facebook spokesman.  

Based on how useless most of those Sponsored ads are (and the sheer volume of them), I kind of doubt that the Facebook team is stopping much of anything, unless it’s blatantly outside the bounds of good sense or taste.

Expecting Facebook to help in the fight against misleading ads is probably wishful thinking, anyway. It does, after all, have its hands full with fake news.

I would also like to take a moment to personally reject Jacobs’ crappy ad (and his ridiculously named business, as well). If you want to promote your clearly brilliant strength-training program, sir, how about you use a picture of yourself and spent five stinking minutes coming up with marketing text that actually has something to do with it. In the meantime, leave Captain Picard alone.

[Updated 7-28-2017 3:20 PM ET with statement from Facebook]

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July 28, 2017
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