Facebook ruling hits Australian brands

08 August 2012

SYDNEY: Brand owners in Australia will be required to moderate inappropriate comments left on their Facebook pages following a ruling by the Advertising Standards Board, posing a challenge to marketers.

The industry watchdog made the ruling in response to a successful complaint filed against VB, a beer brewed by Fosters, and another regarding Smirnoff, Diageo's vodka line, which was dismissed.

It looked at whether questions posed by VB and the resulting user comments, and photos uploaded by Smirnoff and replies from consumers, were overly sexual, discriminatory, contained inappropriate language or promoted irresponsible drinking.

While investigating these claims, the ASB stated that Facebook pages were areas of advertising and marketing over which brands had a "reasonable degree of control", and as such should be subject to its formal code of conduct.

"As a Facebook page can be used to engage with customers, the Board further considered that the Code applies to the content generated by the page creator as well as material or comments posted by users or friends," it said.

This ruling thus demands that marketers ensure any information added to their Facebook pages is not factually incorrect, sexist or racist in tone, and does not vilify certain sections of the population.

''The question is how that can be best achieved without destroying the integrity and spirit of social media," Alina Bain, director of regulatory affairs at the Australian Association of National Advertisers, told the Sydney Morning Herald.

"That's a challenge that faces anyone, whether that be a media company, an advertiser, a blogger, whoever."

John Swinson, a partner at King & Wood Mallesons, the law firm, argued the decision meant brands faced an "extra burden" in monitoring content, and may effectively have to censor conversations.

"It makes Facebook less authentic and if that happens users will just stop going there because you are not seeing the real story," he said.

Chris Watson, a partner at CMS Cameron McKenna, another legal practice, also warned this ruling could have significant consequences for corporations hoping to leverage social channels.

"There used to be no downside to advertising on Facebook," he said. "Now the free lunch is over and reality has intervened. Companies have to take responsibility."

According to The Australian, the complaints against Smirnoff and DB were actually submitted by Sven Brodmerkel, of Bond University, Nicholas Carah, of Queensland University, solely as an experiment.

"It was a totally academic exercise," said Carah. "We were curious of what the ad industry's regulatory process would say, but we did not anticipate the broader ramifications."

Data sourced from Sydney Morning Herald, Smart Company, The Australian, Daily Telegraph; additional content by Warc staff