"If this were a TV network, there would be scandal and lawsuits," one of the largest advertising buyers told me the other day. "It would tear at the fabric of trust in advertising."
That buyer was referring to the latest Facebook admission that "a glitch" had caused the social network to overstate its reach—by an average of 33 percent per week and 55 percent per month—and the seeming tolerance in advertisers' lack of response.
This professional put a finger on one of the biggest unacknowledged problems advertising faces today. By heralding the future and the promise of data-driven relevance, Facebook and other ad tech properties enjoy a double standard that undercuts the advancement of advertising.
Facebook's admission last week was the third such problem in less than nine months. First, we discovered the iPhone 6 batteries were dying fast because the Facebook app was running in the background, falsely attributing activity to users and fluffing time-spent stats on mobile.
Then in September, Facebook admitted it was overstating time spent with its videos by as much as 80 percent. Finally came last week's news of the "glitch" that had again dramatically inflated Facebook's audience across four of the metrics that it tracks.
While Facebook insists advertisers weren't overbilled, that's not the issue. Audience, time spent and reach metrics fuel media planning and allocation decisions—and the collective sense of the platform's momentum. In the words of Traction CEO Adam Kleinberg, "Facebook's pronouncement that it doesn't influence billing is astounding. While it may not influence how they bill, it influences how advertisers spend, and that's fundamentally the problem."
What's more, Facebook's sleight of fact thwarts the momentum of industry efforts to restore accountability, transparency and trust to advertising. One wonders what the Media Ratings Council might find in an audit, if Facebook "allowed" it.
Marketers, where is your outrage? You've poured billions into a black box on a trust-me contract. You control the money and can demand the application of the same rigorous data standards to all the media vying for budgets—audited, third-party audience data providing comparable metrics.
In doing so, you can move easily from "trust me" to "prove it" with Facebook and other ad tech platforms that persuade largely on unverified first-party data. You have everything to gain and nothing to lose.
Sean Cunningham is CEO of the Video Advertising Bureau (@VideoAdBureau).