Amid Boycott Pressure, Facebook Agrees to Brand Safety Audit

The review will be performed by the Media Rating Council

Facebook agreed to an audit of its brand safety measures this week. Getty Images
Headshot of Scott Nover

Facebook has agreed to a brand safety audit amid industrywide pressure over its policies about hate speech and their enforcement.

The announcement comes as a number of brands have said they will take their advertising dollars elsewhere this month and generally reexamine their social media spends over what they characterized as the social network’s inaction against violent and misleading messages.

Facebook said its “partner and content monetization policies and the brand safety controls we make available to advertisers” will be reviewed by the Media Rating Council (MRC), a nonprofit that certifies the reliability of audience measurement services.

The council has tried to convince the social media company to submit to an evaluation based on MRC’s brand safety standards, which were introduced in 2018. But Facebook only agreed to the audit in recent days, according to David Gunzerath, svp and associate director of MRC.

A Facebook spokesperson would not explicitly say whether the audit was timed to advertisers’ demands.

“While Facebook has indicated to us that conceptually it was something they thought they eventually would do, we really haven’t had this kind of movement on it until now,” Gunzerath said. “I can’t speak to their specific motivations for doing it at this time, but I do know there has been a lot of attention in this area.”

In response to Adweek’s questions surrounding the timing of the MRC audit, Facebook spokesperson Matthew Tye re-sent a statement the company has used to address the advertiser boycotting. In it, the company said it has “more work to do” despite previous efforts to “keep our community safe.”

Facebook has verbally agreed to the audit, but not formally, Gunzerath said, and emphasized that MRC is aiming to have access to all of the social network’s products.

“We don’t think this effort will have the full efficacy it should have if it doesn’t apply across the board,” he said. 

The only social platform to agree to an MRC audit of brand-safety standards has been Google-owned YouTube, which saw its own advertiser-led boycott in 2017. The YouTube audit is still ongoing. Once the agreement is finalized with Facebook, the review should take six months, according to Gunzerath.

Facebook’s audit will include “in-stream, Instant Articles or Audience Network,” according to an announcement on its website, but did not mention whether Instagram or any other specific products will be included.

Facebook is also already undergoing an annual MRC audit that evaluates desktop display impressions, mobile web advertising, mobile application advertising, invalid traffic and the minimum standards that all MRC members must adhere to.

From nice-to-have to a brand safety must

The Wall Street Journal reported in early May that Facebook could lose key credentials from MRC, particularly around video ad metrics. Facebook first received MRC accreditation in 2018 in response to industry pressure related to revelations of improper reporting of video ad metrics

At the time, media buyers largely said that while MRC certifications are nice to have, campaign results are what matter most to their clients.

But those sentiments came before recent, intense scrutiny around Facebook’s policies on hate speech, fact-checking political ads and holding politicians to site rules. Currently, an advertiser boycott is sweeping through Madison Avenue, including big-name brands like Verizon, Starbucks and Chipotle.

The MRC can provide an “increased level of reassurance” as brands weigh popular user-generated platforms, said Patrick Foulks, associate media director at the Minneapolis-based agency Periscope.

“Bringing in the Media Rating Council does make a difference because brands are more willing to trust a platform that is vetted and certified,” Foulks told Adweek.

Others feel that it’s a small gesture that doesn’t really solve any of the social network’s larger problems.

“The rule with Facebook right now is all of their moves are reluctant, incremental and ultimately inconsequential,” said Christie Nordhielm, an associate teaching professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. “And this is just another example of that.”

With so many advertisers joining the boycott against Facebook, Gunzerath wants to be able to put the brand safety conversation in context, set against industry standards, so advertisers can better understand how brand-safe Facebook really is.

“It should provide advertisers with transparency into the level of confidence they can have that their advertising investments will be protected on all the different platforms Facebook offers,” he said. He thinks applying industry standards to companies like Facebook is what “lifts all boats” in the industry.

If nothing else, the MRC audit should quantify and standardize a very public conversation that’s playing out in every CMO’s office. 

@ScottNover Scott Nover is a platforms reporter at Adweek, covering social media companies and their influence.