The Australian Advertising Standards Board (an arm of the country's Advertising Standards Bureau) has ruled that Facebook is an advertising medium, and as such, company pages must comply with pertinent codes and laws, vetting all public posts to ensure they are not sexist, racist or factually inaccurate.
“In a move that could change the nature of the social networking site forever, companies could be fined or publicly shamed for the comments that appear on their Facebook ''brand'' pages,” writes the Sydney Morning Herald.
The case involved a complaint to the ASB about Smirnoff vodka's Australian Facebook page, “accused of violating standards with sexist, obscene Facebook content that also promoted underage drinking." The ruling is tantamount to, in the words of Web Pro News, “If you can’t say it on TV or the radio, Facebook users can’t say it on your brand page.”
The ruling "rocked" Foster's and Smirnoff's parent company Diageo, according to Beverage Daily. Diageo reportedly “argued that Smirnoff's Facebook page is a networking tool for communication between company and customer rather than a medium for advertising.”
But consumers don't perceive an official branded FB page as "marketing tool" instead of a "medium for advertising," the ASB counter-argued. Its contention: a Facebook page is a marketing communication tool if it is used "to draw the attention of a segment of the public to a product in a manner calculated to promote or oppose that product."
The Board did not pursue the specific Smirnoff complaint, but ruled in general that Australia’s advertising laws were applicable to everything on a brand’s page — and not just content generated by the company, a ruling with significant impact for large brands where thousands and thousands of comments are regularly posted.
"This is in some ways surprising and may be counterproductive, as it creates an extra burden for brand managers as they are going to have to have people monitoring Facebook. The question is does it apply daily or do you have to look hourly?" asked John Swinson, partner at law firm King & Wood Mallesons.
With Facebook the largest digital landscape for advertising, the residual opportunity for both censorship and misinformation has augmented to the point where the fine line between the two is blurred.
Swinson continues, “If as a Facebook page user I say 'Smirnoff is great because it is a great Russian vodka' when in fact it is made in Australia and New Zealand, that raises an issue for Smirnoff as that is clearly my opinion even though it is factually incorrect. Rather than censoring, which I think is going too far, I think commenting to correct the record is the appropriate thing to do."
The Australian Association of National Advertisers accepts their members' obligation to regulate comments on brand pages, and sees the fundamental quandary as “how that can be best achieved without destroying the integrity and spirit of social media. That's a challenge that faces anyone, whether that be a media company, an advertiser, a blogger, whoever,” commented Alina Bain, director of regulatory affairs, to the Sydney Morning Herald.