Monday, May 20, 2013

The Danger of Facebook Ads That Mislead

I have been on a bit of a tear on this blog as of late on the topic of authenticity and ethics in social media. While this is a vital issue, I had intended to move on--and then I saw a Facebook advertisement that induced me to click. The experience I had with the Bank of America ad has returned me, once again, to the topics of ethics, authenticity and the danger of chasing "fans" rather than furnishing positive brand experiences.

The Facebook ad that caught my attention asked, "How can you support service members and veterans?" The answer: "LIKE Bank of America to find out."

So, I liked the brand. Want to know what happened? Nothing.

Of course, I know how Facebook advertising works, so I did not really expect anything to immediately occur, although I wonder if less experienced Facebook users might expect an instantaneous response that furnishes the promised information. I proceeded to the Bank of America Facebook page to see if I could "find out" how to "support service members and veterans" as promised by the ad.

To give credit where credit is due, the page has terrific content. It is obvious Bank of America is trying hard to produce content that educates and informs rather than merely amuses and entertains. In the past week, the page has furnished information on how to save money, teens active in the community and tips for new graduates. You can also find some military-themed posts, including a shout out for Armed Forces day and a link to a community that is a great resource for veterans.

What I did not find--and what the Bank of America ad promised--was any information on how I can support service members and veterans.

What am I to think about Bank of America because of this experience? Do I think they support the military community? Or do I think they trade on people's desire to help veterans in order to collect "likes" for their page? (Hint: It's the latter.)

Perhaps even more troubling is that fact it took Bank of America less than two hours before they turned my "like" into an advertisement to my friends. I received reports from my Facebook network that a sponsored story was appearing conveying that I "like" the brand.

So, to recap: Bank of America promised to tell me how to support service members and veterans if I liked the brand; they did not live up to that promise; instead, they immediately converted my "like," which was intended as a statement of affinity for service members and not for Bank of America, into an advertisement for the bank.

Sadly, this sort of situation is hardly newsworthy. I am sure you have seen ads like this yourself. "Like" an ad because you support the US flag, and you end up being a friend of Walmart.

The curious thing about this sort of advertising is that it is more likely to damage brand reputation than help it. The potential range of outcomes range from anger to apathy:
  • Someone clicks "like" and is upset that a brand exploited his or her desire to help military members or support the US flag.
  • Someone clicks "like" but does not notice they have actually "liked" the brand. Soon, brand posts are appearing in his or her or news feed, but the user does not know why. The brand posts will not be welcome, which means the consumer is likely to report it as spam, immediately unfollow the brand, or complain about the perceived spam in a post to the brand wall. About the best the brand can hope for is that the consumer will merely ignore the posts, which means before long the brand will have disappeared from that person's news feed; Facebook EdgeRank will have correctly intuited the person has no affinity for the brand and will omit future brand posts from the page.
In both cases, the net outcome is that the brand will have paid for advertising that at best leaves the brand no better off and at worst harms the brand perception with consumers. What is highly unlikely to happen is that someone is induced to like the brand based on false pretense, sees the brand's content, welcomes it, engages with it and creates a relationship that keeps the brand in the user's news feed and moves the consumer through the brand journey toward acquisition or loyalty.

There is a better way. A more ethical way. A more successful way. Instead of deceiving people into thinking they are liking one thing (such as support for service members) when they are really liking another (a bank), brands could simply opt to be honest. There are two ways of being honest--the hard way and the easy way.

  • The hard way--the more successful way--is to create real fans by offering a great product or service experience, and then inviting those people to like your brand on Facebook. Those real fans will be more likely to welcome and engage with your content, to advocate on behalf of your brand and to become a strong, brand-loyal customer. You know many brands like this, ranging from Disney to USAA to Apple to Whole Foods.
  • The easy way is to create an ad like Bank of America's ad and then deliver on the promise. Had the brand lived up to its promise of telling me how I can support service members and veterans, there would have been no adverse brand impression (and no negative blog post about the brand.) Bank of America could have opted to dedicate their company page entirely to content that lived up to the promise of the ad, at least for a short period. Conversely, the brand also could have launched its own military-themed page--"Bank of America supports service members"--and committed to engaging over time on nothing but this topic. Either way, the brand would have delivered on the promise in the ad and furnished a positive brand-building experience. 
The recipe for success with Facebook advertising isn't that tough, at least at a high level: Target the right people; test creative; and be honest in your advertising promises. The latter requires some work to make sure your paid media aligns with the information the brand posts on Facebook. Creating this synergy between paid and earned media is a strategy that works--and one that Bank of America failed to exploit.


RobertKCole said...

Regarding the ethical question, the issue is simple:

Was the intent of the Ad to help Veterans? If yes, no problem. Unfortunately, in this case, it obviously wasn't.

This form of "Like baiting" as you point out, has the sole objective of producing "Augie Ray Likes Bank of America" or "Augie Ray Likes Walmart" to improve click-through rates on ads presented to your social network. That is a problem.

Unfortunately, while the FTC could provide stricter guidelines, it's not just the enforcement that is an issue.

Let's say that the FTC requires all landing pages supporting a social cause must have a call to action that results in the direct financial benefit to that cause (a highly unlikely scenario, but work with me...)

B of A & Walmart already donate millions to causes that support Veterans, so they can easily abide by such a stringent law by simply stating that 1 penny for every like is donated to support a Veterans charity.

Even if they annually donate $100,000 to such charities, that would cover 10 million "likes" per year. And brands know Likes last forever.

Social media is the wild west - and ethics tend to get rationalized away as a means to an end when that end is wealth creation, competitive advantage or the ability to capture a rare commodity.

In your case, that rare commodity is your personal brand endorsement. I noticed on your Facebook profile that you still prominently Like Bank of America.

Maybe you have forgiven them for their ethical transgression. More likely, you forgot or didn't have the energy to go Unlike them.

When it comes to social media & social advertising, brands will always explore the territory surrounding the "Creepy Line" and periodically cross it to see if it can be permanently moved.

WIth big money on the line, Government regulation won't stop the race, it will only change the tactics. Only the moral compasses of the brand marketers will help them navigate these turbulent waters.

Unfortunately, most I know are not rewarded for their ethical fortitude - instead, they get paid for raising awareness, moving product and driving profit.

My prediction is that it gets uglier before it gets better. Maybe Facebook will develop some better form of Liking, but that is doubtful - now as a public company measured on its quarterly performance, Facebook's ideals (which were always a bit sketchy when it came to privacy) will tip in favor of brand marketers.

With Like baiting representing only the tip of the iceberg.

Augie Ray said...


Thanks for the comments. I agree with your take on ethics and regulation, but I also think there's a discussion to be had not about right vs. wrong but successful vs. unsuccessful.

My feeling is that I don't expect the FTC to step in (although a bit more assertive regulatory action wouldn't be such a bad thing), but I do expect brands to be punished for misleadig people. If it was evident to brands that people have reactions similar to my own, this sort of advertisig would dry up overnight, regardless of what the FTC does.

As for my BoA "Like" still continuing, I'm curious to see what (if any) content gets through to my news feed. My experiment continues...

Tony Mariani said...

Here is what I don't understand. Company A has a website. Why does company A spend money promoting a facebook page? What is the benefit? What did we all do before this engagement thing came along?

Augie Ray said...


It's an interesting question. On the one hand, marketing has ALWAYS been about engagement. A consumer doesn't go from being unaware to aware without engagement; doesn't move from aware to consideration without more engagement; and certainly doesn't become a loyal and regular customer with a great deal of engagement. So, I think we've always been in the engagement game.

On the other hand--and to your point--we have to have engagement that matters. I've written about this a lot on my blog. Too many brands are settling for mere engagement--any silly thing that will get a "like"--rather than building engagement that matters to both the consumer and the brand.

I think driving the RIGHT fans to a Facebook fan page and then creating the RIGHT engagement can be very powerful, particularly in a world where consumers trust each other FAR more than they trust brands. Facebook can clearly have a role in this, but whether marketers are using it right is a legitimate question.