Facebook's Intrusive Ad Strategy Rejected By Advertisers

Posted Dec 6, 2007 by Angelique van Engelen
Facebook has quickly changed its tune, reacting to an avalanche of criticism over its intrusive ad strategy. Nevertheless, privacy groups are complaining to regulators. Industry leaders, including advertisers, say that all won´t be easily forgiven.
Mark Zuckerberg  founder and CEO of Facebook. - Photo courtesy Facebook
Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook. - Photo courtesy Facebook
If you think that the fuss is only about Facebook´s Beacon application, think again; even advertisers are worried about the entire range of advertising plans that Facebook launched early last month. They say that if this trendsetter is allowed to go ahead, giving advertisers unbridled access to user information, a dangerous precedent will be created.
The controversy around Beacon has lost Facebook a lot of trust among users. Civic groups are calling on regulators in the US and Europe to draw up some clear rules about social network advertising practices.
Launched November 6, Facebook's Beacon device tracks user behavior in a way that is extremely targeted. It could be considered your average advertiser´s dream. Only, judging from the controversy, advertisers are either smart enough not to admit to this or they have morals after all.
Facebook is accused of having taken a poetic license to the truth when it launched its eagerly awaited advertising strategy. The social network, created by Mark Zuckerberg, a Harvard dropout in his twenties, assured members that their privacy would not be invaded, because all the ad programs it launched would be opt-in.
But the notorious Beacon app appears to be an extreme example of what hyper-targeted advertising aims for in general; total control of people's decision patterns. Only in Facebook’s case, this apocalyptic scenario was delivered rather inelegantly. For starters, the application was offered members in a suspicious, back door entry, fashion. Next, it became apparent that it was incredibly difficult if not impossible, to get rid of it. Once installed on a user's pages, Beacon´s workings turn out to be undemocratic to say the very least. The application creates entire profile pages about users and renders these freely accessible to advertisers, who also keep a record of what ads are sent to members and how their spending behavior is evolving as a result.
Cashing in on the intrusion already starts when the first ads are sent to members; these are calibrated on the basis of what people mindlessly blabber on about on their Facebook profile pages.
The fact that Facebook ´freak jumped´ to a what might resemble any futuristic targeted advertising campaign´s end case scenario might be a blessing in disguise. At least the outrage has stirred up the debate about the subject and the discussion is centering on the wider implications that targeted advertising and social networks cause in terms of privacy invasions.
Zuckerberg, young and nimble enough to realize the upset is rather serious, apologized to the users on the Facebook blog. He addressed the issue in a remarkably roundabout way; by focusing on the way the company had introduced their new advertising feature on November 6. “I’m not proud of the way we’ve handled this situation, and I know we can do better,” Mr. Zuckerberg wrote. He also told people about an improvement to the option to switch off the Beacon app.
Zuckerberg was writing in response an outrage of members that had intensified to new heights. People had been already worried about the advertiser intrusion Beacon effected within the network, but that was only days before the major wham bam of anger was provoked when news reports pointed out that the beacon feature also tracks member actions when they are logged out. Meaning; once you allow Beacon access to your Facebook profile, the feature will follow you around on the web too.
Kathryn Montgomery, Ph.D. Professor of Communication, American University, said“ Facebook’s announcement is a stopgap measure designed to quell the huge public outcry from consumer groups and users over its ill-advised new marketing scheme. The move to allow users to turn Beacon off entirely may restore a small measure of control to Facebook’s members, but it is by no means an adequate safeguard for ensuring privacy protection on this and other social networking platforms.”
Advertisers are also toeing the line. The New York Times reports that Coca-Cola condemns that users would have to take proactive measures if they did not want messages about their spending behavior sent out to friends. Others also see the feature as a bizarre twist in the general ad strategy, which Facebook introduced as an opt-in program with an emphasis on member choice, but which has degenerated into something that people associate with trickery.
The Center for Digital Democracy´s Chester said that even though Facebook users will be able to turn off Beacon, Zuckerberg isn’t truly candid because Beacon is just one aspect of a massive data collection and targeting system put in place by Facebook. “Mr. Zuckerberg’s goal, as he explained on November 6, 2007, was to transform Facebook into ‘a completely new way of advertising online.”
“This is a bit of an example of Facebook being, as we refer to it, ‘out over your skis.’ They got a little bit ahead of themselves,” Elizabeth Ross, president of the digital advertising agency Tribal DDB West, told the New York Times.
“Facebook’s brand advertisers should not permit this statement to diminish the real privacy and security concerns embodied by Facebook’s new targeted ad system,”, says Jeff Chester, Executive Director, Center for Digital Democracy. He adds that CDD is going to press U.S. and EU regulators “to address Facebook’s significant privacy problem”. Chester's site published the letter sent to the FTC.
Montgomery is worried about companies activities to collect private people's information. "Companies are continuing full steam ahead with new generation of intrusive marketing practices that are based on unprecedented levels of data collection and personal profiling", she signals.
She called on regulatory agencies in the U.S. and in Europe to "conduct a thorough investigation of these new forms of social network marketing and develop rules to ensure that consumers are fully protected in the emerging broadband era.”
The US civic group created an anti Beacon group on Facebook, which reached over 50,000 members requesting Zuckerberg to end Beacon. The group pointed out on its website how tricky the application really is.
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