Facebook ads in firing line after complaints

WILLIAM MACE
Last updated 05:00 09/09/2012

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Kiwi companies delving into the Facebook advertising game will need to beware of promoting excessive alcohol consumption or hosting offensive chatter, after a landmark decision by an Australian regulator.

All content on a company's Facebook page, even user-generated comments, is now subject to regulations and penalties, according to a judgment by Australia's Advertising Standards Bureau.

New Zealand's self-regulatory body, the Advertising Standards Authority, said it has taken the same approach and will assess all social media content based on advertising regulations.

The decision has drawn the ire of advertisers and advocates in Australia who say monitoring and pre-moderating the real-time conversation on their pages is too costly, commercially unviable, and undermines the spirit of social media.

Ogilvy New Zealand digital advertising director Greg Whitham said Facebook's success was based on its public openness and immediacy, which could be damaged by censorship or moderating.

The issue came to the attention of the Australian regulator after two academics filed complaints against Fosters for its Victoria Bitter-branded Facebook page and Diageo for its Smirnoff vodka page. The complaints quoted VB's Facebook page posting statements such as: “it's nearly 5pm - time to crack the weekend's first VB” on a Friday or Saturday afternoon.

VB's fans would reply with statements such as: “what's this 5pm crap, cracked my first one hours ago” and “on the 8th already”.

In reply to VB's question about what's needed for an Australia Day barbecue, fans replied with statements such as: “sluts" and VB.

VB's owner Carlton & United Breweries [CUB] claimed the tone of its Facebook page was “tongue in cheek and ironic” and matched the overall tone of Facebook as well as the tone of mainstream beer marketing in Australia. The comments were “throwaway lines” expressed “in the vernacular” and were not to be taken seriously, it said.

CUB did not believe third-party posts on its Facebook pages fell under the definition of advertising and were therefore not regulated by the advertising industry's code of ethics.

New Zealand's Advertising Standards Authority chief executive Hilary Souter said branded Facebook pages managed by companies are clearly classed as advertising and the same rules would apply here as in Australia. But the ASA would not go as far as the Australian regulator to categorically state that companies had such an obligation to moderate their pages.

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“I'm not saying we would take the approach that Australia has taken, we have different codes and requirements, but we are certainly aware of it as an issue and we are aware that the advertising community would like more guidance on this," said Souter.

The ASA was working on a “guidance note” to provide advertisers with the background of existing ASA decisions and “help in terms of what they need to look out for”, she said.

New Zealand's ASA has already settled at least four cases involving social media, including one where DB Breweries accepted it had responsibility for user-generated content on its sites. A photograph posted by a user showing a young baby holding a bottle of DB Export in its mouth clearly breached standards requiring alcohol advertisements to depict people only over the age of 25, said the ASA.

Independent Liquor also agreed to monitor its Facebook feeds more tightly after images were posted showing teenagers indulging in Vodka Cruisers.

Dr Andrew Hearn from The Health Promotion Agency, an organisation including the former Alcohol Advisory Council, said alcohol advertising and media exposure increased the likelihood that adolescents would start drinking, or would drink more.

Hearn said social media issues were “complex” and he would await the publishing of the ASA's guidelines.

Whitham said classifying user-generated posts as advertising was “a little unfair” when the brand had no direct part in the conversation. “That is happening everywhere whether it's on a Facebook wall or in a conversation between friends, Facebook is really just a magnifying glass on some of those conversations that are taking place.”

However Whitham said the few social media complaints that had already been through the ASA were “the thin end of the wedge”, especially if companies didn't acknowledge the effort and resources required to manage their social media accounts.

- Sunday Star Times

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