Facebook's decision to halt new political ads will have big implications for last-minute campaigns but little impact on its ad business

  • Facebook said that it would stop accepting political ads one week before the US presidential election in November to review and fact check the ads while cutting down on misinformation.
  • The move could divert last-minute political advertising to streaming TV and programmatic platforms.
  • But advertisers can work around the new ban, and the impact on Facebook is likely to be minimal since political advertising is a tiny amount of its business.
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After facing scrutiny about its handling of misinformation and political ads during the 2016 presidential election, Facebook said it would not take any new political ads in the week leading up to this year's presidential contest in November.

Facebook also announced steps to promote legitimate reporting on the election and combat posts that discourage people from voting.

Joe Biden and President Trump have been spending big on Facebook for more than a year. But small and midsize businesses make up the bulk of Facebook's $70 billion advertising business, so the ban on new advertising campaigns will have little effect on Facebook's revenue. CEO Mark Zuckerberg said political ads would make less than 0.5% of Facebook's 2020 revenue.

Other digital media platforms including Twitter, Pinterest and Adobe have banned political ads.

"There's more money than ever that would have been spent on it," said Rob Shepardson, a political consultant who helped cofound the ad agency SS+K and worked on both of Barack Obama's presidential campaigns. "But any way you slice it, it's not a significant hit for Facebook."

Shepardson said Facebook's new ban could throw a wrench in political campaigns, though, with 20% to 25% of political ad budgets spent in the week before an election encouraging people to vote. That money is likely to go to streaming TV platforms, programmatic advertising, and audio advertising, said Ivanka Farrell, senior director of media operations at political ad agency Bully Pulpit.

"There are plenty of elections where people make up their mind the last week," Shepardson said. "'Get out the vote' is a massive operation of any sophisticated campaign."

Facebook's rule comes with catches, though

Patrick Savoia, director of global media at ad agency Blue State, pointed out that the impact of Facebook's decision could be small this year because campaigns are emphasizing ads promoting mail-in voting that starts weeks before the election. He said that the biggest impact will be on local races where last-minute spending is heavier.

He said it's also unclear if Facebook's new policy applies to cause-based advertising, which has in the past been treated the same as political and nonprofit campaigns.

While politicians cannot run new campaigns in the week before to the election, they can still run campaigns in the week before the election if they start them eight or more days beforehand. They can also increase their spending on campaigns that are already running.

Shepardson said that in his interpretation of the policy, Facebook's effort could end up stripping out some of the targeting and custom messaging that politicians traditionally use in last-minute campaigns.

Savoia said that Facebook's new policy also doesn't address the platform's problems with its algorithm that can surface misinformation and hate content.

"I think it is a lot of lip service," he said.

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