Tuesday, October 27, 2015

How we can learn from 'The Worst Facebook Ad Ever' two years later

Zulfa Rizqiya

Ad Age dubbed a Facebook ad posted by an online dating site "The Worst Facebook Ad Ever" in a September 2013 article.  Two years later, I would argue the same.

Through Facebook's "self-serve" advertising system, Canadian online dating site ionechat.com used photos of a deceased Canadian girl in two of their Facebook ads, both with the headline, "Find Love in Canada!"

What makes matters worse is that the girl in question is Rehtaeh Parsons, who was subject to cyberbullying on social media sites, including Facebook, after photos from her alleged rape were shared online.  She consequently died after a suicide attempt induced her into a coma and family had to make the difficult decision of removing her from life support.

Unlike Facebook's system of "social context" advertising, which allows advertisers to use real people's photographs in ads that would only be seen by their Facebook friends, Parsons' ad did not fall within this system.  Rather, her ad could be seen beyond her Facebook network and anyone from anywhere could view the ad and screen shot it, as many did.

(Source: Twitter)

To anyone with basic knowledge of Parsons' story, there is no question the Facebook ad is highly tasteless and unethical.

The ethical value the ad challenges is minimizing public harm, especially in terms of emotional harm.  With Facebook being the source of Parsons' cyberbullying, having her legacy live on the format that caused her the most pain is emotionally distressing and insensitive to both Parsons and her family.  Not only is Parsons' image being used in a dishonorable way, her image is used as a means for ionechat.com's profit.

Recognizing the harm the ad has on Parsons' family and friends, I thought Facebook was ethical in that it acted with accountability and responsibility for the ad.

In an apology issued by a spokesman for the company, Facebook said it had removed the ad and banned ionechat.com from the social network.

"This is a gross violation of our ad policies and we have removed the ad and permanently deleted the advertiser's account," said the spokesman.  "We apologize for any harm this caused."

While ionechat.com and the person who administrated the Facebook ad, Dung Nguyen of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, never issued a statement, an apology outside of Facebook wasn't necessary as ultimately Facebook's "self-serve" advertising was at fault for making it so easy for companies to use people's photographs with lack of competence.

In this case, all that matters is that those directly harmed by the ad are satisfied with the actions taken to address the issue, which Facebook managed to do.

In an interview with Toronto Star, Glen Canning, the father of Rehtaeh Parsons, reacted positively to Facebook's actions.

"I think banning the ionechat.com company was the right move to make," said Canning.  "IT's hard to say what can be done but I think Facebook removed it fast and I appreciate that and they apologized for it which is good."

While Facebook managed to prevent more harm to Parsons' family by removing the ad from its site, the screenshot of the ad continues to circulate the internet.

Does the circulation of the screenshot of the ad pose the same ethical issues as when the ad was live?  As those who share Parsons' image are not using her image for profit, I would argue no.  Rather, I believe her image is now used as a means for educational purposes, gaining the public's interest to learn more about who she was and ultimately facilitating ethical discussions on the use of her image in the Facebook ad.

What do you think?

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