Does Facebook police its advertising guidelines?

Facebook has a long list of clear guidelines on what it deems is appropriate advertising, so why are there so many ads breaching them?

Nic Healey Senior Editor / Australia
Nic Healey is a Senior Editor with CNET, based in the Australia office. His passions include bourbon, video games and boring strangers with photos of his cat.
Nic Healey
4 min read

(Credit: Facebook)

opinion Facebook has a long list of clear guidelines on what it deems is appropriate advertising, so why are there so many ads breaching them?

I recently returned to Facebook after a lengthy hiatus. I mainly came back after some convincing arguments from people that it's essential for anyone in my line of work and, of course, there was always the lure of a simple way of keeping in touch with friends and acquaintances.

That, and the fact I kept missing out on parties because the invite only existed on Facebook.

Bizarrely, I felt some trepidation coming back. As I'd detailed in an unnecessarily exhaustive series of articles at the start of the year, I'd had my CNET headshot stolen and used in a series of Facebook ads that insinuated I was working from home, 44 and — worst of all — from Melbourne.

Trying to get something done about the ad proved difficult, to put it mildly, but that's all in the past now. (Although, you can read the saga here, here and here.)

So here I am, back on Facebook, and once again finding myself utterly infuriated by the ads — but this time, it's the ones without my face in them.

Last time I was active on Facebook, I found myself getting a lot of ads in the style of "over 35 and still single?" This time, I decided to not list my relationship status, absurdly assuming that this would make all the attempts at digital shaming go away.

I was wrong, but the ad that really grabbed my attention was this one:

(Screenshot via CNET)

Yes, basically it's suggesting that women arbitrarily deemed to be unattractive by an app are just hanging around waiting for me to click.

It's stunningly offensive, and I found myself quite curious as to how it had been approved in the first place, so I decided to ask.

I contacted the local PR team for Facebook. On the phone, I asked about what Facebook's approval system for advertisers was, saying that I'd encountered a thoroughly offensive ad and emailed a screenshot through for reference.

Nine days later, I received an email back with a link for Facebook's help page on "How to report things".

I got back to them, explained what I was actually after and was given a far more useful link: Facebook Advertising Guidelines, from which I tracked down the similar-but-slightly-more-plain-language Guidelines for Advertised Products & Services.

To summarise some of the more salient points, ads for dating services:

  • May not "use images that imply nudity or are otherwise provocative or sexually suggestive"

  • May not "show excessive cleavage or skin, or otherwise inappropriately dressed people"

  • May not use "vulgar, profane or insulting language"

  • May not have "a primarily sexual emphasis"

  • May not imply "a negative sentiment for the user"

  • Must "portray people in a happy, yet appropriate and neutral manner".

So congratulations, offensive ad! You've gone six for six, right there. In no time at all I found a number of ads that breached those guidelines and some others, such as the one that says you can't "imply that there is a connection between the Facebook chat and message products and your service".

(Screenshot by CNET)

(I was also intrigued to note that dating ads may be targeted to people who list their relationship status as either "Single" or "Not Specified", but that's a whole different kettle of fish).

So with all of these clear breaches of guidelines, how are these ads appearing on Facebook? Well, I found a couple of hints.

Over on Guidelines for Advertised Products & Services, there are a number of rules regarding the targeting of ads. It includes this line: "These targeting requirements must be met in order for dating ads to be approved to run on Facebook." This is the only time that there is any suggestion that an approval process exists. At no point are any of the other guidelines suggested to be rules, nor are there any defined consequences for breaking them.

In fact, the Facebook Advertising Guidelines page even clearly states "these guidelines are not intended to serve as legal advice, and adherence to these guidelines does not necessarily constitute legal compliance".

So the insinuation is that your targeting parameters may have your ad blocked from appearing on Facebook, but your content won't, even if it breaches the guidelines. Following on from that, it seems that Facebook is reactionary — only stepping in when ads are reported, rather than proactively screening ads for content deemed in breach of its guidelines.

We've asked Facebook for some confirmation on if it has an official approval process and we're waiting to hear back.

Perhaps (and that is a big perhaps) this wouldn't be such a big issue if it wasn't for one thing: Facebook's highly proactive approach to shutting down user content that it deems offensive.

You know, things like a photo of an elbow that looks like a nipple at first glance. Or a conservative political page. Or a series of photos of a small child participating in a Special Olympics event. Or the Facebook page used by the municipal department of the City of New Haven in the US.

These aren't automatically generated blockings — these come via the very human User Operations Team. While they do respond to users reporting content, they also proactively seek it out, which is what happened in the two photo examples above.

So you may take comfort to know that while Facebook will seek out and remove any photos containing nudity (including pictures of breastfeeding mothers, which will be blocked if nipple is visible), it seems that you'll need to actively let Facebook know if you find a dating ad describing women as "ugly" to be offensive.