The Facebook Ads and Government Problem


Government "Accidentally" Helping Facebook Make Profits Via Ads on Government Pages

Q: In an earlier interview, you were absolutely adamant that government should not be using Facebook as a customer service platform. One issue, among many, that you mentioned was the issue of ads put on government Facebook pages. We should go back to that.

Robert: We should. It's probably one of the biggest reasons why governments should be rethinking their Facebook strategies.

Q: So, in your view where is the problem?

Robert: Actually there are a few inter-linked issues here. But first, you need to understand how advertising on Facebook works.

I've advertised on Facebook, so let me run this through. The system is a self-serve one, where advertisers create their ads, then choose the people they want to see the ads (the target users). Advertisers generally pay on a per click basis. Every time someone clicks on an ad on Facebook, there's a charge. Of course, Facebook has reviews of the ad content and rules, so it's not like one could advertise illegal services or products, at least in theory. But the bottom line is that Facebook controls what ads are displayed on government Facebook pages.

Since that's the main way Facebook makes its money, it's in its interests to get the maximum clicks for the maximum price per each click. Clear so far?

Q: Yup. Got it.

Robert: Ok. Now, ads that are targeted to a specific audience are worth, and cost way more than general blitz type ads that appear for everyone. That makes the information Facebook collects about user interests, behavior, age, etc, hugely valuable. Which brings us to the first issue and that is when government is providing a mechanism so that Facebook can collect and use information about visitors to government pages to target the ads, and therefore to profit by using that information.

Q: Could you give an example that would be similar but in a non-virtual world?

Robert: Ya. Every year, a province I know of has a Christmas open house free to the public, with some government luminaries in attendance. Imagine if the guest list for these events, including interests, hobbies, ages, gender, etc was SOLD to advertising agencies, so the attendees could be called, emailed, etc. Can you imagine the uproar?

Q: But government isn't selling any information by using Facebook.

Robert: No, maybe it should, and cut some taxes, since the result is the same, as is the principle. Government, by participating on Facebook, and attracting visitors, is in effect, exchanging the use of a free service (Facebook) for visitor information used to market to/ show targeted ads to those visitors. It's no different at all, except that government provides, at least indirectly, access to user information, "sold" in exchange for a free service.

Q: So, you are saying government shouldn't be doing that?

Robert: No. It shouldn't. Government doesn't exist to put money in the pockets of for-profit companies that are making hundreds of millions of dollars. Neither should it PLAY ANY PART in making it easy to market to its constituents. Governments spend millions upon millions to prevent that in contracting, yet they are contributing directly to Facebook's ability to sell and profit from ads.

Q: You mention other issues about Facebook ads. What are they?

There's two more. The first has to do with having NO control over what ads are being shown to constituents using the government Facebook pages. The second has to do with the potential for people to get confused about whether government endorses the ads appearing.

Let's do the first. There are lots of "Official" Facebook pages coming out of government. Would it be acceptable for ads about mature subject matter to appear on government websites? Why would we accept that on Facebook. Or, what about the "belly-fat" ads we see all over the place. No government in its right mind would intentionally put such ads on its web pages, when most of them are advertising worthless products or services. Mind you, you won't find ads on most government websites, and for good reason-we'll get to that. The bottom line is that government can't control what appears on its Facebook pages, because Facebook puts those ads there. Since when does government rely on a third party, for profit company to provide appropriate content? It doesn't.

Q: So it's an issue of controlling the ads that's a problem?

Robert: Of course. But it's also the issue of providing exposure for companies, reputable or not on an "official government" venue. It's not allowed anywhere else. Government staff can't wear T-shirts to work with "Buy Insurance From All-State" on it. Government offices can't have ad posters promoting one supermarket over another. In fact, even recommending commercial companies is dicey.

Government is supposed to be independent of commercial interests. (It's not, but lobby groups is a different issue). Government, in total, or individual employees cannot promote, or provide exposure to commercial entities.

But on Facebook, that's what's going on. Granted government isn't doing so intentionally, but it's doing so by tacit consent.

The issue as to whether ads on Facebook pages are seen as government endorsement of the ad content ties in here. On every other government site, it's clear what the content is about. You don't expect a government tourism site to tell you the BEST hotel to use in the city, but on Facebook it's easy to confuse what's an ad that government has nothing to do with, and something government might be suggesting.

Q: I don't know. Seems like you might be picky here. Do you believe some people will actually believe the ads on government Facebook pages are endorsements by the government?

Robert: Actually, I do think some people will. Lots of people who use Facebook are relatively unfamiliar with the rest of the Internet, or believe Facebook IS the Internet, so there's a level of naivety going on. But that's besides the point. Even if they don't see it as endorsement, government is providing ad space, indirectly. Cripes, it's not even getting compensated for it.

Q: Well, thanks Robert. I've not seen anyone discussing this, so thanks for the throught provoking ideas.

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