What Will It Take for Advertisers to Back Away From Facebook?

Media buyers say Facebook’s still doing well enough for clients to ‘look the other way’

As long as business is doing well, advertisers may continue to spend on Facebook. Getty Images
Headshot of Kelsey Sutton

The New York Times reported on Tuesday that Facebook gave its partners access to more personal information of its users than the company had previously disclosed, including friends’ lists, contact information and the contents of users’ private messages. In another report on Wednesday, BuzzFeed News reported that Facebook was collecting sensitive user data from Facebook-compatible third-party apps, even if users said they did not want that information collected.

But media buyers who help their clients spend their ad dollars on the social media platform said that business-wise, the news was no big deal.

One media buyer, who asked to remain anonymous in order to speak candidly, put it simply: clients aren’t pulling ad spend out of Facebook because Facebook is still very effective for them to do business.

“If Facebook is performing well, it’s insulated from the news,” the buyer said. “At present, they’re performing well enough for clients to look the other way.”

The bombshell Times story, portions of which had been previously reported on by the Wall Street Journal, showed how Facebook was providing personal information to tech companies like Amazon, Microsoft and Netflix. The BuzzFeed News story, based on a report from the mobile security group Mobilsicher, found that sensitive data was flowing freely from apps like Grindr, OkCupid and Tinder to Facebook, even if users opted out of targeted ads.

Publicly, Facebook’s image has been bruised, its stock has tumbled and some major media figures have said they’ll abandon the platform. Mat Baxter, the global CEO of the IPG Mediabrands-owned agency Initiative, said in a LinkedIn post that it was “about time we take a collective stand against the egregious behavior of Facebook.”

Every time these sorts of stories surface they assure us that they are ‘trying harder’,” Baxter wrote. “Enough is enough. I will be advising clients to stay off the platform entirely—hopefully, when they feel the pain of lost advertising dollars things might just change.”

But the buyers Adweek spoke to said that they think that because most Facebook users will stay, so too will they.

“We don’t expect consumer defection at some rapid pace,” said Albert Thompson, the managing director of digital at the full-service agency Walton Isaacson. “When someone says that Amtrak has hundreds of derailments, it’s not like people stop booking. People just say, ‘I pray to God that’s not my train’.”

Kevin Porter, the media communications director at the full-service agency Walrus, said that while he’s anecdotally seen some people leave the platform, the agency “hasn’t seen a wholesale departure that would cause me concern from being able to reach prospects and help our clients.”

If consumers were abandoning Facebook in droves, Porter said, that’d be cause for reevaluation. But until then, the dollars will stay.

Part of the reason there hasn’t been an exodus, Thompson supposed, is that stories about data privacy are a harder sell as a rallying cry—both for consumers defecting from the platform en masse and for advertisers thinking about symbolically cutting their ad spend.  Unlike, for example, advertisers temporarily pulling their ad spend on YouTube when ads appeared next to terrorist content, data privacy scandals are more nebulous and harder to understand. Plus, he added, they don’t necessarily run afoul of corporate guidelines.

“When you start talking about data sharing, you’re talking about a transparency issue,” Thompson said. “That’s not, for everyone, an attack on morality.”

If this all seems hazily familiar, let’s bring October back into focus. After Facebook disclosed a security breach impacted 50 million users, advertisers and buyers did what they do in these situations: shrug.

“[Data breaches have] happened so many times that people are like, ‘Well, this sounds pretty bad, but what are we going to do?’ We still have to advertise on Facebook,” Kevin Urrutia, a co-founder and partner at Voy Media, then told Adweek. “ … At some point you become so used to it that it barely registers.”

But Porter wondered about when—or whether—a shift will occur.

“I just wonder how many more times this has to happen before your average user realizes, ‘Gee, maybe there’s something I really should be concerned about here’,” Porter said. “And I don’t know when that will happen. It’s an educational process, but I’m not really sure it’s a priority for people to fully understand how these platforms work and what they’re capable of.”

@kelseymsutton kelsey.sutton@adweek.com Kelsey Sutton is the streaming editor at Adweek, where she covers the business of streaming television.
Publish date: December 20, 2018 https://stage.adweek.com/digital/what-will-it-take-for-advertisers-to-back-away-from-facebook/ © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT