What the Facebook political ad ban means for you

by Scott VanderLey, Senior Vice President, Digital Strategy at Moore and Caitlin Watkins, Digital Media Buyer at CDR Fundraising Group



Last week, Facebook announced that it would cut off political ads after the end of voting on November 3rd.

This shouldn’t have a blanket effect on nonprofits.  What should and what is, however, are not always the same thing.  In practice, it’s impossible for any broad policy like this to not have false positives (things that shouldn’t be affected but are) and false negatives (things that should be affected but aren’t).  Nor would it be the first time for Facebook.

At issue for nonprofits are ads that are a category of ads Facebook calls “social issues, elections, or politics.”  For ads like this, they require verification that the user is in the United States.  Facebook says ads are flagged in the United States for social issues including civil and social rights, crime, economy, education, environmental politics, guns, health, immigration, political values and governance and security and foreign policy. 

But these broad categories sweep up non-political ads.  One company positioned their paint as eco-friendly because it only required one coat.  This was flagged as being environmental advocacy and not allowed to run.  As was an advertisement for a free “poop emoji farting plush toy.”  (On the latter case, a Facebook spokesperson said the poop emoji should not have been marked as political, although those who watched the first presidential debate may disagree.)

This highlights the central challenge.  We don’t know how long the ban will be or how quickly appeals will be processed.  But we do know some ways to avoid the coming dragnet, if there is in fact a coming dragnet:

Wrap up any truly election-focused campaigns before Election Day.  If you are encouraging people to register to vote or to go to the polls, you will want to end these activities on or before November 3rd anyway.  There’s no guarantee that Facebook will save you from yourself by stopping these ads, so put in your own controls.

Avoid key words.  In the landmark Buckley v Valeocase, the Supreme Court said there were eight magic words that meant a communication was “expressly advocating” for a candidate or cause: “vote for,” “elect,” “support”, “cast your ballot for”, “Smith for Congress”, “vote against”, “defeat”,  and “reject.”

Facebook has these same types of magic words.  And no, they don’t tell you what they are.  But years of testing has found that words like “military” (even when in the context of a veterans’ service organization) or “poverty” will get flagged. 

Pre-appeal your ads.  It could have been that Facebook’s scarlet-ish letter was fine when you were getting your ads set up.  After all, you are an American organization and, with a little bit of patience, you were able to get authorization to run these ads.  You got some ads flagged for being about social issues that aren’t, but you didn’t bother to appeal them because who has that kind of time?

Now’s the time.  Appealing your ads now may keep you out of Facebook jail in 19 days’ time.  If your ads aren’t about social issues in a political sense, but rather focusing on solving social ills with donor support, you may be able to get the diktat overturned before it’s crucial (and before everyone else has the same idea).

Duplicate, alter, and pray.  Still have an ad that isn’t passing muster?  Try copying the audience but rewriting the ad copy several different ways.  If one or some of these make it through the gate, you now have a certified kosher ad off of which to build.

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