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Is this crisis actually helping to boost Facebook’s image? It’s complicated

The social network’s emotional new ad illustrates how it’s helping people feel less isolated.

Is this crisis actually helping to boost Facebook’s image? It’s complicated

This week Facebook joined the chorus of recent brand advertising aimed at reflecting and inspiring solidarity, empathy, resolve—and just a bit of brand loyalty—among us all amid this crisis.

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Its new ad starts with an emotive piano score over empty streets, classrooms, buses, and store shelves. There are people in masks, people in hospital beds, people in tears. All of the images backed by the narration of poet Kate Tempest reading her beautiful—and remarkably prescient—2019 poem “People’s Faces.”

Then the bleak images give way to those of people in touch online, people laughing, smiling, talking, posting what they’re doing, how they’re feeling—all on Facebook. “We’re never lost if we can find each other,” says the tagline, then a link to the company’s COVID-19 support page for those who need help or can offer it.

Created by the ad agency Droga5, along with Facebook’s own marketing team, it’s a fantastic piece of advertising.

It also illustrates how this crisis may actually be doing more to rehabilitate Facebook’s image than the company has been able to manage itself in what was a three-year apology tour.

Here we have a company that has a cornucopia of issues around data and personal privacy, the spread and manipulation of misinformation, not fact-checking political ads, mishandling Instagram passwords, and the dire consequences of providing the world with an unregulated broadcasting tool, among others.

In its first-ever Super Bowl commercial just a couple of months ago, Facebook consciously aimed its spotlight at users rather than the company or its product. The underlying message being that this is about you, not their control—and profiting—over the communication and information of more than 2.7 billion people.

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This new spot similarly prefers to focus on how Facebook products, such as its namesake social network, Instagram, and WhatsApp, are mere conduits through which to bring us all together.

At no time could that message possibly be more effective than in the midst of mass social isolation.

Facebook is also thankfully backing up the ad talk with action like expanding its Community Help feature to let people request and offer assistance during the pandemic, as well as pledging $100 million to help news organizations, and another $100 million to small businesses. It even took the surprising move of removing a video from Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, in an effort to prevent the spread of potentially harmful misinformation about the novel coronavirus.

Add to all this a poignant film set to a lovely poem, and it’s a big brand win, right?

Well, as with all things Facebook related, it’s complicated.

While the company is in many ways following brand advertising best practices of closing the gap between actions and advertising, the issues that it’s been facing don’t just *poof! disappear. The company has long fought off regulation by claiming it’s not a media organization, yet according to The New York Times, its role as a news source has only grown, with half the news stories its users are sharing being about coronavirus. Meanwhile, the bulk of its financial contributions both to news organizations and small businesses come in the form of ad buys.

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This double-sided coin of Facebook’s brand image was summed up well by author and critic Anand Giridharadas, who tweeted last week, “I think the crisis has made me realize that I have undervalued the tools made by Silicon Valley. Which are, yes, prone to abuse, monopoly, foreign meddling, and all the rest. But which right now feel like pillars of civilization while so many other pillars crumble.”

With its new commercial, Facebook is appealing to our emotions, hoping to flip the image of it as an under-regulated corporate overlord, in favor of being seen as a benevolent respite amid uncertain times.

Much like the focus of Facebook’s advertising, it’s up to you whether it works or not.

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About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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