Let me be the first to admit that I am guilty. It was not that long ago that I was presenting seminars and writing how social media advertising – Facebook, in particular – was the greatest new development since the Internet itself. As recently as four years ago, I was offering suggestions on how to beat Facebook at its own game, using guerilla marketing techniques on the platform. Sure, we all recognized that the intrusions into our personal privacy were a bit creepy, but the ability to reach targeted marketing prospects seemed to be worth the compromise. After all, when I was a child watching television in the 1950’s, Captain Kangaroo would seamlessly segue from visiting with Bunny Rabbit and Mr. Moose to selling Kellogg’s Rice Krispies and Schwinn Bicycles, and what was wrong with that? Actually, there was plenty wrong with it, prior to a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) ruling in 1969 that prohibited children’s show hosts from directly promoting commercial products.
In the beginning, Facebook (originally called Facemash) seemed to represent little more than an awkward attempt by nerdy Harvard undergrads with a lack of actual social skills to meet young women at neighboring colleges. When you think about it, even that original concept (an extension of the sexist freshman photo books that had been sold on college campuses for decades) violated the personal privacy of the young women whose photos were being used. From that start, it did not take long for Facebook to reinvent itself into a money making machine that would be built upon ever-increasing exploitations of personal privacy.
On a personal level, I stopped using Facebook in its entirety in early September of 2020. I actually experienced what I would describe as a 7 to 10 day period of withdrawal, missing the ability to stay in daily touch with countless friends both old and new, but my sense of newly discovered freedom afterward was absolutely refreshing. Over the course of the 10 years or so when I remained active on the platform, I would often joke about how Facebook would “coincidentally” show me advertising that was related to one of my recent posts or comments. When I, along with millions of other people, started using ad blockers, Facebook started showing paid posts in lieu of paid advertising. These paid posts represent advertising content that is being disguised as editorial comment, even when that advertising is originating with foreign governments or other unscrupulous characters. The only way this can happen is by Facebook’s algorithms monitoring every word that you type, just as craftily as the National Security Agency (NSA) monitors the telephone conversations of known terrorists.
What made me see the light was when I realized that Facebook’s business model was designed to amass huge profits by intentionally sowing discord among its subscribers. Regardless of where a person falls within an increasingly polarized political spectrum, Facebook will show that person paid content that pours fuel on the fire while demonizing those with opposing viewpoints. By being fed a one-sided diet that is often based upon disinformation, subscribers’ opinions and beliefs are reinforced in a manner that continually enhances the polarization. It should not require an insurrectionist attack upon the U.S. Capitol for reasonable people to understand that this represents a rapidly accelerating downward spiral.
Let us be clear that Facebook advertising is not a bargain. In the early days, businesses would pay to advertise on the platform in order to get users to “like” their page and then see their posts. Soon afterward, advertisers needed to pay Facebook so that even people who had already “liked” their page could actually see their posts. Think about it. This means that you are paying Facebook so you can reach your existing customers. Why would anybody pay to do that when there are countless alternate means of reaching your existing customer base at a far lesser cost? In the campground industry, some of the same people who willingly pour money into Facebook advertising question the rationale for offering Good Sam and similar discounts that they feel cut into thin profit margins. I would rather offer a customer incentive than to take that same money and pour it into Facebook’s coffers.
Yes, Facebook and the other social media may be capable of sending you customers, but at what price and in what environment? If a drug dealer approached you and said, “Yes, my main business is selling heroin, but I can also send you customers”, would you do business with that person? I doubt that many of us would enter into that sort of deal with the devil.
The Federal Trade Commission (yes, the same people who ruled that Captain Kangaroo should not be hawking breakfast cereal) is currently proposing the breakup of Facebook, a process that is long overdue. Facebook has steadily grown – with the acquisition of Instagram, WhatsApp and related platforms – and a breakup of its monopoly would be the first such action since the breakup of AT&T four decades ago. Many of my peers in the advertising industry will disagree with me, and I welcome that debate. I remember the days when tobacco products were extensively advertised on television, a practice that contributed to countless deaths. Today, I believe that many other types of advertising should be banned because they either mislead consumers or actually prey upon vulnerable segments of our population, typically the elderly. These include the advertising of prescription pharmaceuticals, advertising by class-action attorneys (think “mesothelioma”), advertising directed at children (think about Saturday mornings), and advertising directed at senior citizens (think about Medicare supplements and the aforementioned pharmaceuticals). In the meantime, it is your decision as a small business owner to decide whether or not to continue financing a business model that you may agree is inherently wrong.
This post was written by Peter Pelland