Early on, Facebook made one of the best ads of the pandemic.
An emotive piano score plays over images of empty streets, classrooms, buses, and store shelves. People in masks, people in hospital beds, people in tears. All set to poet Kae Tempest reading their beautiful—and remarkably prescient—2019 work, “People’s Faces.”
But the bleak images quickly gave way to those of people in touch online—laughing, smiling, talking, posting what they’re doing, how they’re feeling, all on Facebook. The tagline: “We’re never lost if we can find each other,” and then a link to the company’s COVID-19 support page appears for those who need help or can offer it. Created by ad agency Droga5, along with Facebook’s own marketing team, it hit all the right notes.
The only problem here is that the Facebook in this ad also happens to exist in the same universe as another Facebook. The one that has been a health misinformation superspreader during the same pandemic where it sought to present itself as a lifeline for connection. The one that explicitly allowed politicians to lie on its platform leading up to a Presidential election. The same Facebook, which has more users than the Catholic Church, whose CEO Mark Zuckerberg said he didn’t want to be an arbiter of truth.
That Grand Canyon-size gap between the company Facebook projects itself to be—and the company defined by its actual, real-world actions—is why Facebook is the worst brand of 2020.
You can’t talk about Facebook’s 2020 without looking at how it ended 2019, which was in a full-on PR crisis—thanks, but not limited to, CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s performances in front of the House financial services committee. He managed to embody all the worst impressions of a hubristic company, out of touch with its role in the world, and refusing to see the mirror being held up to its face, embodied perfectly in this now classic “Lying is bad” moment with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
— NowThis (@nowthisnews) October 24, 2019
By January, the company was already Zuck-deep in a brand image crisis. Casey Newton wrote on The Verge that if Facebook was to turn public opinion around, it would have to make the case that its tools have a net-positive effect on the world, and address the viewpoint of some current and former employees that the product is “better compared to sugar or nicotine than to a Millsian marketplace of ideas.”
So, 11 months later, how did the company do?
Not long after George Floyd was killed by police in May, the social network was struggling to stem the spread of the viral conspiracy documentary Plandemic. The broader cultural conversation around systemic racism was in full swing, and in June three Democratic senators called out the company’s “lack of action to prevent white supremacist groups from using the platform as a recruitment and organizational tool” despite Facebook’s stated policies on hate speech. In a letter to Facebook, Virginia Senators Mark Warner, New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez, and Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono wrote, “While Facebook has attempted to publicly align itself with this movement, its failure to address the hate spreading on its platform reveals significant gaps between Facebook’s professed commitment to racial justice and the company’s actions and business interests.”
This coincided with an advertising boycott called Stop Hate for Profit, launched by civil rights groups such as the NAACP and the Anti-Defamation League, as well as Color of Change, Free Press, Common Sense, and Sleeping Giants, to force Facebook to stem the sheer amount of hate speech and divisive content on the platform and halt its long-standing tolerance of problematic posts by President Trump and his campaign. Brands like Unilever, Adidas, Ford, Lego, The North Face, REI, and Patagonia joined in to pause spending on Facebook for at least the month of July. As a PR exercise, it was a success, but it didn’t dent the company’s bottom line and most brands have since returned.
Still, Zuckerberg didn’t help his reputation when he said as much and was also called out by Stop Hate For Profit’s leaders after meeting with them, for being “not yet ready to address the vitriolic hate on their platform” and offering “the same old defense of white supremacist, antisemitic, Islamophobic, and other hateful groups on Facebook that the Stop Hate For Profit Coalitions, advertisers, and society at large have heard too many times before.”
In August, the advocacy group Avaaz reported that misleading health content had garnered an estimated 3.8 billion views on Facebook over the past year. The report said that content from 10 “superspreader” sites sharing health misinformation had almost four times as many Facebook views in April as equivalent content from the sites of 10 leading health institutions, such as the World Health Organization and the CDC. Then in September, a former Facebook data scientist’s 6,600-word memo—published by BuzzFeed—outlined the avalanche of fake accounts around the world that she had tried to shut down.
Meanwhile, the brand launched another tear-jerker ad—shot by an Oscar-nominated cinematographer, and featuring a soft emo cover of “I Will Survive” by Lykke Li—celebrating a beloved New York neighborhood restaurant called Coogan’s that was forced to shut down during the pandemic.
You can’t facilitate the spread of pandemic-related misinformation and then pat yourself on the back for helping at least one small business navigate that very pandemic. Well, you can, but it’s absurdly disingenuous.
Even Facebook has worked to distance its brand from . . . Facebook. Sort of. The company’s pandemic spot wasn’t about the company, but really bent over backwards to illustrate how Facebook products are mere conduits through which people come together. The brand’s first-ever Super Bowl ad, which ran in February, tried a similar tack. That one consciously put the spotlight on you—the Facebook user—to get your attention as far away as possible from things like not fact-checking political ads or mishandling Instagram passwords.
You know you have a brand problem when your Super Bowl ad agency—one of the world’s very best—publicly questions the morality of simply having you as a client, as Wieden+Kennedy’s Colleen DeCourcy did in Time back in October. When asked, “If you were a betting person, do you think Facebook will be a client next year?” DeCourcy said, “I wouldn’t put too many of my dollars on that space.”
Now in the last few weeks, as the Federal Trade Commission and attorneys general for 46 states, the District of Columbia, and Guam are taking Facebook to court for violating antitrust law, the company launched a PR attack against Apple (a brand whose reputation is far more sterling than Facebook’s, despite some notable missteps in 2020), over user privacy and advertising. Facebook launched a website and took out full-page ads in major newspapers to declare it was standing up to Apple on behalf of small businesses.
But it’s a dispute that carries with it the whiff of desperation, a high-profile attempt to turn the tide of public opinion at a time when it’s almost impossible to hear over the bad PR waves already crashing against it. The divide between the company Facebook is and the one it wants you to see has been growing for years, and now the looming, years-long battle over antitrust will only magnify these issues and put them under even more scrutiny.
Facebook should brace for that sooner rather than later, as it has lifted its ban on political advertising for the Georgia senate runoff race, setting up another potential mess.
In 2020, Facebook became a rather slick marketer, telling a story of a company standing up for small businesses and small groups at a moment when bigness has become ascendant. But no matter what narrative its advertising tells us, Facebook lost the plot a while ago—and appears nowhere near finding itself.