Facebook and Google are finding out that the problem with massive disruption is when landscape gets all churned up it isn’t able to provide a stable foundation until it settles, which can often take several years. Facebook counts nearly ¼ of all people on Earth as users. It has a reach so incomprehensibly big it’s very difficult to fathom. Google is, by far, the world’s largest advertising company with its ubiquitous AdWords ads, 60% of the display ad market through its DoubleClick unit, and a virtual monopoly on searchable online videos with YouTube. More than any other Internet behemoths, Facebook and Google are the biggest beneficiaries of the shift in ad revenue from traditional media sources like television, magazines, and newspapers. Together, they have become the gatekeepers of the Internet and thus the duopolistic sources of most people’s information.
In recent years, stock values for both companies have surged, matched only by the speed and scope of control they have over the information and advertising marketplaces. For a quick perspective, last year Facebook saw nearly $13billion dollars in ad spend pass across its servers. Google saw just under ten times that with $110billion in ad revenues in 2017. When a major newspaper like the Toronto Star, New York Times, Chicago Tribune, or LA Times laments lower ad revenues are killing effective journalism, this is where the monies that once supported vast news gathering organizations has gone.
That would be an excellent position for both companies with Facebook posing the greatest challenge to Google and Google deftly fending off Facebook while both earned oodles of money while watching Amazon with fear and suspicion. Unfortunately for both them and for us, it’s just not that simple. Neither Google nor Facebook create their own content. Both rely on people like you and me to create, curate, update and appreciate information, mostly about ourselves. They also rely on the same news gathering organizations that once enjoyed the advertising revenues now being paid to Facebook and Google for the content they recommend to us, the consumers. Remember however, anyone can add content to Facebook and Google and it is remarkably easy to upload less than honest information to the system. While always a problem in previous years, there has been a sudden and sharp influx of completely false and often dangerous information proliferating from the margins to the mainstream via Google and Facebook.
As shown in the 2016 US election , the misuse of mainstream advertising by shadowy political forces to push messages designed to destabilize western society by promoting misinformation and hate has reached levels previously unseen in human history and most certainly unanticipated by Facebook or Google. This has placed large advertisers such as Proctor and Gamble, Unilever, and the Ford Motor Company, three of the largest advertisers in the world, in an untenable position.
Digital marketing presents the most efficient and well targeted advertising venues which can be empirically measured and expertly planned for. Facebook and Google know their user-bases extremely well, in both cases on a highly personal basis. Advertisers can micro-target their offerings to increasingly specified consumers on Facebook and Google platforms. If you want to limit your ad spend to Ford drivers who live in the greater Toronto area and tend to purchase a certain type of fabric softener when they shop, you can. That’s a boon for advertisers who need to get their messages out to their target audiences without wasting time or energy on people outside that target group. It’s a holy grail for marketing companies.
At the same time, you want to be taken seriously and to be taken seriously; you can’t be associated with people who believe the Earth is flat or that George Soros hires Moon-men to lead demonstrations. You certainly can’t be connected with publications or politicians who are tone deaf to contemporary issues. Currently, advertising on Facebook or using Google’s DoubleClick or YouTube opportunities might just place your brand in places your brand simply can’t been seen in.
Recently, the world’s second largest advertiser, the Unilever Corporation, gave Facebook an ultimatum. Facebook has a short period of time to figure out how to self-police itself or Unilever is pulling its ad spend and taking those hundreds of millions somewhere else. Unilever is not alone. Fast food giants, car companies, restaurant chains, and other brands are also considering moving their ad monies elsewhere.This presents two important questions. The first is hard to answer. What can Facebook do to clean itself up? The second is even harder. Where might the Unilevers of this world take their money?
Neither question is answerable in a blog post. A former programmer at Facebook was once asked over supper if they knew when their platform was being used to spread misinformation and, if they did, why they didn’t take action to stop it. He relied that Facebook didn’t want to stifle free speech, which is a reasonable enough position for a company steeped in First Amendment protections. As of this week, Facebook has announced it will send a piece of snail mail to a company starting a new page or group in order to verify it is where it says it is.
As for where a large advertiser with money to burn that doesn’t wish to be burned will spend it, that’s another question. The supply chain of traditional advertising venues has not only broken, it’s generally being ignored by consumers whose tastes have run to on-demand streaming services over scheduled broadcasts and online infotainment rather than subscription magazines or daily newspapers. Whatever Unilever et al decide to do with their ad-spends we could be witnessing a major watershed moment in digital advertising, the moment the ad-buyers started to care about exactly what was being put in the products they buy.