Facebook Lifts Veil on Ads

(Bloomberg Gadfly) -- On Wednesday, Mark Zuckerberg proclaimed himself "dead serious" about improving the safety and integrity of Facebook Inc., to avoid a repeat of foreign powers spreading misinformation across his digital hangouts.

Along with Twitter Inc. and Google, Facebook is trying to ward off legal oversight of advertisements related to political campaigns and perhaps hot-button issues such as immigration. But I'm surprised that Facebook and Twitter also plan to go further and reveal, for the first time, who's behind all ads that run on their social networks, whether it's your nextdoor neighbor or Red Bull. 

It may be too difficult to draw the line between what is political advertising and what isn't. But the pledge to be more open about all kinds of ads also is part of a broader realization by technology companies that they can no longer completely defy the old rules. Yes, tech titans are slowly growing more like the television and newspaper dinosaurs they aim to replace.

Facebook Lifts Veil on Ads

Among Facebook's planned policy changes is a test that will let people click on the Facebook, Instagram and Messenger pages of organizations to see their active ads running on Facebook's network. (Facebook pages associated with politics will have fuller disclosures.) 

That means, for example, that I might go to Coca-Cola's Facebook page and see what I assume would be dozens of paid messages the company is sending into Facebook's sprawling digital hangouts. Twitter is doing something similar.

This may not sound like a big deal, but it is. By offering a window into all commercial messages, Facebook and Twitter are giving a peek at a part of their business that's far more important to their bottom lines than political ads.

That said, there may be less to the Facebook and Twitter transparency pledges than meets the eye. Neither Facebook nor Twitter have said they will disclose information such as how many people Coca-Cola is reaching with social ads, the amount of money spent and -- this is crucial -- how the marketing spots are targeted. Large scale but tailored advertising is a big reason why Facebook is great for pitching soda, and also why it's useful for Russian propagandists

Facebook Lifts Veil on Ads

"Sharing the creative of ads -- whether political or non-political -- is much less risky than the targeting and often micro-targeting data that is behind them," said Jason Kint, CEO of Digital Content Next, a trade association for media companies and a frequent critic of Facebook and other technology companies. (Bloomberg is a member of Digital Content Next.)

And even a modest level of transparency might be too much for some advertisers. It's easy to imagine the person responsible for marketing Huggies diapers might not love the idea of competitors seeing all the Facebook ads he is running.

Oddly, this brings Facebook and Twitter more in line with dinosaur media. In the days when TV and newspapers ruled advertising, it was easier for that Huggies executive to gather information on how much his rivals were spending, where those commercials ran and what they looked like. "Before Facebook, you always could" know this information, said Rob Norman, chief digital officer with marketing company WPP's GroupM. 

And that goes back to my original point about new media starting to creep closer to old media. It's an overdue sign of the companies' maturation from upstarts to titans. They're being forced to play by old rules, and that's probably a good thing.

A version of this column originally appeared in Bloomberg's Fully Charged technology newsletter. You can sign up here.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Shira Ovide is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering technology. She previously was a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.

To contact the author of this story: Shira Ovide in New York at sovide@bloomberg.net.

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