Advertiser backlash over ‘unrealistic’ Facebook fan comments ruling

09/08/2012

Australian advertisers are staging a fight back over a new ruling that classes Facebook fan comments as advertisements- making brands liable for an offensive comments made on their pages. Drinks brand Fosters has called the decision ‘commercially unrealistic’. This week, the Advertising Standards Board ruled that a Facebook brand page is an advertisement in a case involving a successful complaint filed against VB, a beer brewed by Fosters, and another regarding Smirnoff, Diageo's vodka line, which was dismissed.

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It looked at whether questions posed by VB and the resulting user comments, and photos uploaded by Smirnoff and replies from consumers, were overly sexual, discriminatory, contained inappropriate language or promoted irresponsible drinking.

The judgment states that comments made by ''fans'' of a brand's Facebook page were ads and must therefore comply with industry self-regulatory codes and therefore consumer protection laws.

Many large brands use the social media site in order to advertise and get free referrals.

Although the ruling is limited to brands in Australia, its impact could be far-reaching if advertising boards across the world adopt a similar stance to the comments made on brand’s Facebook pages.

'Ironic comments'

In response to the ruling against VB, parent company Foster's has argued that many of the fan comments on its VB Facebook page are meant ironically.

"The only way for a producer to be certain that no inappropriate user comments appear on a Facebook page for its product would be either not to have that Facebook page at all (which is commercially unsustainable given the importance of social media in marketing in 2012 and its likely increased importance in future), or to review every user comment before allowing it to appear on the page," the Foster's group said in a submission to the ASB.

"A requirement for pre-moderation of every user comment would be contrary to the spirit of social media and would cause users to become disengaged from the page."

VB also warns this monitoring would require an "unreasonably high level of resourcing by the producer. Effectively, moderation staff would need to be engaged 24/7, every day of the year, to review every user comment as quickly as possible after it is submitted. This is commercially unrealistic."

Diageo’s own experience indicates just how powerful social networks can be. Last September it announced it was stepping up its controversial relationship with Facebook to encourage people on the social network to drink its products.

At the time Diageo said it had achieved a 20 per cent boost in sales off the back of the Facebook campaign, with a particular kick for Smirnoff as a result. In November theFinancial Times reported that Diageo would spend $10 million on Facebook adverts in return for support from Facebook with its social campaigns.

According to the drinks giant’s own marketing code it only places its content on sites where at least 70 per cent of users are above the legal age of purchasing alcohol, although it notes that where that measurement is not available the company’s corporate relations team would exercise their judgement as to whether the site was appropriate or not to host material about Diageo products.

'Academic exercise'

According to The Australian, the complaints against Smirnoff and DB were actually submitted by Sven Brodmerkel, of Bond University, Nicholas Carah, of Queensland University, solely as an experiment.

"It was a totally academic exercise," said Carah. "We were curious of what the ad industry's regulatory process would say, but we did not anticipate the broader ramifications."

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