Facebook AI is mislabeling ads by Nike, Reebok and others as political

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Facebook's political ad police are flagging brands even when their ads are anything but political.

One recent Reebok ad was removed because it didn't conform to Facebook's political ad policies, even though all it promoted was a sports bra. Meanwhile, more than two dozen Nike ads were labeled political, but they mostly only featured pictures and videos of sneakers.

When an ad is flagged as political, it is entered into Facebook's political ad archive. There is no real punishment for the brand other than being incorrectly characterized and having their ads kept publicly on file, revealing information about their marketing strategies, like how much the ads cost and how many people saw them.

Ghost in the machine.
Ghost in the machine. Credit: Illustration by Ad Age

For example, Papa John's was slapped with the political designation for its apology ad that ran after founder John Schnatter was accused of using a racial slur. It's unclear why these disparate brands and ads set off Facebook alarm bells, but they were all pushed into the company's protocols for handling political advertising.

Facebook said that the ads from Nike, Reebok and Papa John's were mistakenly relegated to the political ad archive, and that it has been working with brands to fix these kinds of issues.

Last week, after Facebook was notified about the ads appearing in the archive, they were removed promptly.

"These ads were placed in the Ad Archive by mistake and are now removed," said Rob Leathern, director of product management at Facebook, in an e-mail statement. "Our goal isn't to penalize organizations but to help prevent abuse. That's why we've worked with these brands and many others to gather their feedback and improve the process. Enforcement is never perfect but it continues to get better as we train more reviewers and our automated systems review more ads."

Facebook has been keeping a political ad archive since May, designed to add transparency to campaigns and issue-based ads. The archive shows all the ads that touch on political issues, but what is political is often open to debate. Facebook has been criticized for being overly aggressive with what it considers political, like social justice causes, LGBTQ and environmental topics.

In June, a Walmart ad was taken down for not abiding by the political rules, because the ad mentioned "bringing jobs back to the U.S." Facebook reversed that decision.

The archive reveals who bought the ad, how much was spent, how many people saw it, and where it was targeted. Facebook, Twitter and Google all built similar archives after the 2016 presidential election, because they were abused by bad actors who created fraudulent accounts to buy political ads that promoted disinformation.

Now, with the U.S. midterms approaching, Facebook is on high alert to make sure all political advertisers are from the U.S. and that they don't employ underhanded messaging tactics. Facebook built the archive so that academics and watchdogs could uncover any irregularities.

Advertisers mostly understand that Facebook will make mistakes and that it needed to get a grip on political advertising problems, but it's also been overly stringent in some cases, according to Jeanne Bright, vp and head of social activation at Essence Global in North America.

"We have had some of our brands flagged by Facebook as political advertisers when talking specifically about topics like voting," Bright says. "Even when the brand is just encouraging the act of voting, and not taking any sort of political stance, we've gotten flagged."

Facebook is still refining the process of vetting political ads and limiting false-positives, identifying ads as political when they aren't. However, it appears to be erring on the side of caution, preferring to ensnare some brands erroneously if it means being effective policing campaign advertising.

Nike, Reebok and Papa John's did not return requests for comment.

These Nike ads were caught in Facebook's political ad review.
These Nike ads were caught in Facebook's political ad review. Credit: Facebook

The Nike ads in Facebook's political database were not political at all. They were shopping ads that linked to Nike's website, and they just showed sneakers in photos and videos. Since they were in the archive, however, it was possible to glean some insights into Nike's strategy, like what it spent on each ad and what type of creative performed best for the brand.

By Monday, the ads attributed to Nike's main Facebook page were removed from the archive. However, one ad from the official Nike Football page remained in the archive. The ad from September promoted football cleats.

As for Reebok's sports bra ad, it was removed from the political archive on Friday, after Facebook was notified that it was mistakenly flagged. Papa John's ads were removed from the archive, as well.

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