Smirnoff and Facebook - Not the perfect mix?

A recent decision by Australia’s Advertising Standards Bureau around comments left on Smirnoff’s Facebook page comes as companies re-evaluate its value. Flickr/Owen W.Brown

Imagine a world in which advertising companies were held directly accountable for the vision of the world their ads portrayed. Accountability could range from simple things like why deodorants don’t immediately make you more attractive to the opposite sex to why drinking beer doesn’t turn you into a gold medal winning sports person at the Olympics.

This is, however, what Australia’s Advertising Standards Bureau (ASB) have effectively determined in their ruling regarding complaints raised against Victoria Bitter’s and Smirnoff’s Facebook pages.

The complaint specifically asked the ABS to consider comments made by Facebook users on these pages that featured:

Sexism, racism and other forms of discrimination or vilification; Irresponsible drinking and excessive consumption; Obscene language; Depiction of under-25 year olds consuming alcohol; and Material that connects alcohol consumption with sexual or social prowess.

The ABS determined that brands and their agencies were responsible for the comments and images that their followers posted on their pages. In essence, this meant that they were expected to moderate posts and remove anything that didn’t comply with general advertising standards.

Of course, this decision was met with howls of complaint and hand-wringing from the “Interactive Advertising Bureau”, who claimed it would be the end of advertising using social media because of the burden it placed on advertisers and their agencies to moderate these pages.

What made it worse apparently in that reality-distorted way these things are reported, was the fact that the complaints were made by academics and not consumers. This apparently should have made the complaining null-and-void, despite the ABS finding examples of material that breached their standards.

It is worth stressing in all of this that the ABS actually dismissed the complaint. So while it stated that in theory companies were responsible for their fans’ comments, the fans in this case had not done anything wrong.

Which makes the whole thing effectively a storm in a teacup.

I have to declare that the concept of spending time writing comments on a Facebook page dedicated to Smirnoff vodka is still puzzling to me. As is the fact that a standards authority should determine that promoting the drinking of alcohol, with all the known adverse health consequences it brings about, should be okay. This is irrespective of what the general public adds.

For Facebook, of course, this ruling is a potential disaster. At a time when it is struggling to convince everyone that its share price is not grossly overvalued (it is now nearly 50% of its launch price), anything that potentially dampens its ability to earn revenue from advertising is going to be a problem. Facebook’s latest financial statement showed it made a loss in the second quarter of 2012, with 84% of its income coming from advertising.

There is an assumption that social media have become an essential platform for all companies in their advertising and marketing strategies. There is enough evidence to suggest that people interact more with social media advertising than other forms of online ads.

For General Motors at least, the benefits were not worth the cost and they withdrew their ads from Facebook. Other companies such as Limited Run have abandoned Facebook, claiming that 80% of the clicks it was receiving was from “bots” and not real people. It wasn’t clear from this who the “bots” were being controlled by, as Facebook would be the only company to gain from bots being used to drive “Likes” up.

Of course there is the separate discovery that at least 83 million accounts (or 8.7% of users) on Facebook are fake. Whether these fake accounts are actively participating in the social engagement of products or not is not clear.

Only time will tell if Facebook is able to translate its nearly one billion users into income that will satisfy its investors. The fact that it has recently turned to supporting real-cash gambling apps on its site is not encouraging however. Seen as some as an act of desperation to find ways of making money, this is the slippery slope before turning to other means of raising money that rely on additive behaviours, such as other forms of “adult entertainment”.