Six marketing lessons from the #fbrape campaign

Facebook has relented to pressure over content promoting violence against women. Nicola Kemp asks what marketers can learn from the backlash.

A week is a long time in social media. In just seven days a campaign by Women, Action and the media, the Everyday Sexism Project and the activist Soraya Chemaly has led to the world’s biggest social network to change its policies on content endorsing rape and domestic violence.

Facebook, which had previously defended its policies on the grounds of free speech, issued a statement admitting it systems to identify and remove hate speech ‘have failed to work as effectively as we would like, particularly around issues of gender-based hate’.

Over the past 7-days campaigners have targeted a number of brands, with Unilever’s flagship Dove brand finding itself at the epicentre of the campaign.

With the success of the campaign only likely to boost the already ever-increasing focus on social media campaigning, here are six key marketing lessons that marketers can take away from the campaign that forced the world’s biggest social network to reassess its approach. 

1. Consumers hold brands culpable for where their advertising appears

Consumer campaigners targeting advertisers in order to protest over media owners content is nothing new; you only need look at the spectacular fall from grace from the now-defunct News of the World redtop, to see how targeting advertisers is a well-established strategy when attacking media platforms.

Yet from the response of many of the brand’s targeted by campaigners as part of the #fbrape campaign it seems marketers have yet to fully grasp the fact that, rightly or wrongly, consumers hold brands responsible for where their advertising appears.

Robin Grant, co-founder of social media agency We Are Social, says that while it’s a really complex issue the average consumer couldn’t care less about the technical reasons ads appear next to content. "They see ads next to content and they make that connection," he explains. 

Ultimately consumers hold brands accountable for where their content appears and simply holding their hands up and saying "its nothing to do with me" is simply not good enough.

Ultimately consumers hold brands accountable for where their content appears and simply holding their hands up and saying "its nothing to do with me" is simply not good enough. The Pringle’s brand clearly failed to understand this, stating on its Facebook page: "Our ads are targeted based on your profile not on what you’re looking at, so we can’t control what content they pop up next to. Obviously we don’t condone this kind of content at all and it’s a shame that our ad happened to pop up next to it."

2. Advertiser targeting is not the core issue

A number of brands as well as the industry body ISBA have placed advertiser targeting at the heart of this complex social issue. The initial response from Unilever’s Dove brand that "in the future, we will be refining our targeting to reduce the chance of our ads appearing on similar pages" focused on advertising targeting in isolation. As well as pledging a refinement in targeting that social media experts say is not currently possible. An approach which succeeded in alienating consumers through its lack of humanity.

Guidance issued by ISBA, which did not directly address the Facebook campaign, also focused exclusively on the issue of advertiser targeting. Bob Wootton, ISBA’s director of media and advertising, said: "Advertisers are rightly concerned with their ads appearing on websites that are bad taste a best and highly offensive, or illegal, at worst; why should they spend years and millions of pounds establishing their reputation only to have that investment damaged, possibly irrevocably, by something they have virtually no control over."

He goes on to suggest that "well-targeted ads use anonymised data so that, for example, those of us who don’t own pets will never have to be served a dog or cat food ad, and so on. Why can’t similarly sophisticated technology be employed to the benefit of the advertiser to."

There are three fundamental issues with marketers and industry bodies believing this is principally an issue about advertiser targeting. Firstly it assumes brands are operating in a moral vacuum and as long as despicable content doesn't appear directly next to their ads they would be happy to continue to financially support the platforms on which this content appears.

Let's face it it's unlikely a poster would identify their interests as violent misogyny in the same way they would confirm they liked marmite, or had a dog, for example. 

Secondly it ignores the fact that brands and their agencies are actively choosing to target consumers via algorithms or blind networks and are thus culpable. Thirdly this approach assumes the future will deliver a one-sized fits all algorithm which can give brands a cast iron assurance they won't be exposed to offensive content. This belief is particularly naive when it comes to Facebook targeting, which focuses on people not content. Let's face it it's unlikely a poster would identify their interests as violent misogyny in the same way they would confirm they liked marmite, or had a dog, for example. 

It is notable that in their lengthy response to the campaign Facebook’s VP of Global Public Policy Marne Levine did not once mention advertiser targeting. In fact marketers could learn an important lesson from the social network, which framed the issue in terms of its impact on its users and society, not the nuances and narrow interests of advertiser targeting. As Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently told Wired magazine when asked if he would please users over advertisers "That’s the only thing that matters."

Neil Kleiner, head if social at AIS, said the industry is constantly obsessing over things that consumers don’t really care about. "The fundamental issue isn’t targeting it's that Facebook is effectively the third largest country in the world and it doesn’t have the infrastructure in place to support this scale."

Focusing on advertiser targeting rather than the broader issues raised left the industry at risk of appearing both insular and disconnected from consumers' genuine concerns over disturbing and damaging content. In the social media age brands simply holding their hands up saying "this content has nothing to do with me" simply won’t wash. Consumers increasingly expect brands to put doing the right thing and taking a stake in society ahead of self-interest.

3. In the social media the velocity and shape of a consumer backlash has changed irrevocably

Perhaps the most important lesson for brands from the campaign is the growing impact of social media in consumer campaigns. According to We Are Social’s Grant this is an ongoing trend and pressure groups will only ever increase their presence on social media channels moving forward. "I don’t think the average consumer on the street was aware of this campaign but they were able to build, galvanise and focus support very quickly," he explains.

Many of the brands targeted by the campaign struggled to keep up and with many employing an ever-increasing web of agencies they struggled to stay on top of the crisis. Spare a thought for the trade PR agency of one of the advertisers at the very epicentre of this crisis who didn't even know the high profile #fbrape campaign existed three days into the crisis.

When the speed and scale of a consumer backlash is so fierce and fast brands and their agencies can no longer afford to operate in a vacuum. On a practical level not separating a brand’s social listening and social response capabilities and ensuring key lines of responsibility is crucial. While empowering local markets to halt global content campaigns could end the kind of mismatched content and branded messages appearing throughout the campaign, such as that seen on Dove's Facebook page.

4. Beware of a "computer says no" approach to social media.

At a time when brands are focusing on conversational marketing and driving one on one relationships with consumers, failing to respond in a human way to consumers is a flawed strategy. 

At a time when brands are focusing on conversational marketing and driving one-on-one relationships with consumers, failing to respond in a human way to consumers is a flawed strategy. 

Nissan UK, which not only quickly moved to suspend advertising but commented on how the content had upset people in its office reflects the strength of a human down-to-earth approach. One which was in stark contrast to Dove’s focus on the technicalities of advertiser targeting.

"Nissan have taken the more social response and its not wrapped up in hyperbole. When brands react in a genuinely human way its far more natural," adds AIS’ Kleiner.

Chris Buckley, director of social engagement at TMW, says that brands must recognise when they are operating in a space that encourages dialogue there are upsides and downsides. "The fact that this campaign was evolving over the bank holiday weekend highlights a problem that both brands and agencies suffer from; namely they aren’t always active on social media when their consumers are."

"The lesson for brands is they have to acknowledge what is happening, accept it and don’t try to hide or distance themselves from it. The thing about being a truly social brand is accepting the good and the bad," he adds.

5. Knowing when to say nothing is crucial

However on the flipside, in an era where almost every global brand has a range of pressure groups targeting them social media experts argue that knowing what to ignore, is just as important as knowing when to engage.

"Brands cannot afford to have their day to day business held hostage by campaigners," warns We Are Social’s Grant "It is crucial to take a nuanced approach you can’t simply respond to everything."

6. Brands must know what they stand for and stick to it.

As the brand that found itself at the epicentre of the campaign Dove perhaps suffered the most from the consumer backlash. The cold response of the brand, which has long marketed itself aligned itself with real women, was at sharp odds with its pro-women positioning.

Christian Gladwell, CEO at Human Digital, says the five years that Dove has spent building itself up as a pro-women brand have gone up in flames. "All of this content and criticism will exist in the fourth space for years to come. At a senior level you would hope that Unilever will take the time to assess how and why they got this so wrong."

Certainly a number of marketers are taking the opportunity to reassess their digital marketing strategies. Those brands, which moved to pull their advertising, such as Nationwide, are taking a suck it and see approach to Facebook’s announcements. The velocity in which technology has transformed marketing is yet to be matched with an increased understanding of the myriad of ethical issues marketers must now tackle head on.

Nicola Kemp is head of features at Marketing.

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