The ASB – Facebook Comment Debate

Facebook Comment

There’s been some debate this week over a recent controversial ruling by the Advertising Standards Board (ASB) in regard to the liability of fan comments featured on Facebook brand pages.

A recent complaint was made about the Smirnoff Facebook page, due to images of consumers with alcoholic beverages that demonstrated a ‘connection between alcohol and sexual prowess’. In addition,  many comments in response to the above mentioned images were deemed ‘obscene’ in nature.

Interestingly, the complaint was rejected by the ASB, yet the industry press have remained knee deep in debate all week.

Understandably, Mumbrella’s article created some initial cause for concern where they stated that “the ASB believes brands are responsible for the content written by fans on branded Facebook pages.”

This idea that brands are responsible for ALL comments by fans on branded pages opened a huge can of worms. The questions poured in:

  • How can a brand be held responsible for the opinions of it’s fans?
  • What are the implications for consumer reviews & testimonials on branded Facebook pages?
  • How can brands be expected to stop their fans from positively commenting about their products?
  • Surely brands are not expected to pre-moderate ALL Facebook fan comments?

And then to add more fuel to the fire, another complaint was made against VB for alleged racist, sexist and anti-gay comments on it’s Facebook page.

In response, The Fosters Company made the following points:

“The only way for a producer to be certain that no inappropriate User Comments appear on a Facebook page for its product would be either not to have that Facebook page at all (which is commercially unsustainable given the importance of social media in marketing in 2012 and its likely increased importance in future), or to review every User Comment before allowing it to appear on the page.

A requirement for pre-moderation of every User Comment would be contrary to the spirit of social media and would cause users to become disengaged from the page, i.e. they are unlikely to tolerate the inevitable delay between their submitting a post and it appearing on the site, which runs contrary to the sense of immediacy and spontaneity that users expect from a Facebook page.

Further it would require an unreasonably high level of resourcing by the producer – effectively, moderation staff would need to be engaged 24/7, every day of the year, to review every User Comment as quickly as possible after it is submitted. This is commercially unrealistic.”

When it comes to responsibility for consumer opinions in the online space, where do we draw the line?

I spoke to Brian Gordon, acting CEO of the Advertising Standards Bureau, to gain some clarity on the situation. Brain said:

“The [ASB] code of ethics covers issues such as discrimination and vilification, objectification, violence, language, sex/sexuality and nudity and health and safety.

The Code of Ethics does not cover issues of truth and accuracy and those issues are not matters for the Board to consider.  Complaints to the ASB, about the truth and accuracy of advertising is all its forms, are referred to ACCC.”

There appears to be a distinct line between ‘offensive Facebook comments’ and ‘Facebook comments that promote a brand in any way.’

As you would expect, brands have a responsibility to monitor ‘offensive comments’ that are deemed obscene in nature, and this extends to ALL branded platforms, Facebook included.

However, when it comes to ‘brand promotion’ or any kind of ‘product claim’ by a fan, this is not covered in The Code of Ethics and is a matter for the ACCC, not the ASB. As Brian said:

“It’s not about a person saying brand a is better than brand b”.

So, before you give the go ahead to pre-moderation of all Facebook fan comments, be aware that there has been some confusion regarding the ‘context’ in which the rulings have been made this week.

In the case of ‘product claims’ by fans on a branded Facebook page, brands are NOT liable (based on The Code of Ethics), however any content posted by fans that is deemed offensive in any way is the responsibility of the brand hosting the Facebook page.

That’s not to say that the ACCC won’t introduce liability for ALL fan comments in the future. For the moment – the focus should be on the encouragement of ethically sound community conversations – which lets face it, is not a new thing.


Zoe Boalch

About Zoe Boalch

Zoë Boalch is co-founder of Contagious Agency. Zoë likes: hot chili, yoga, learning new stuff, positive people, taking risks Zoë dislikes: naysayers, grumpy people, rather large egos
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