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As investigations into political tampering with the 2016 US election on Facebook have made headlines and perhaps spurred corporate introspection, one would hope that the company is in the process of tightening its ad controls. Given the huge importance of social media company in the world’s communications, we can ill afford to have false information circulating that undermines democracy – or that supports racist and hate-filled positions.

But even if Facebook is placing ads under more scrutiny, it’s still pretty difficult to understand what led them to ban ads for a production of Sondheim and Weidman’s musical Assassins, currently underway at NextStop Theatre in Virginia, a professional non-Equity company. In the behemoth of Facebook, a single ad may well just have gotten caught up in the gears, but for NextStop, it denies one of their primary advertising platforms, one of the very few where they can deploy video.

Here’s the spot in question:

Matthew Thompson, managing director of NextStop, said that when they first deployed the ad, it was on their event page for the production, distinct from their company page. They did pay for a sponsored post, and at that time Thompson said that, “There were no issues with it. It was posted and approved almost instantaneously.”

However, when the company posted a slightly revised version, simply to accommodate a different aspect ratio for the video and tighten up the length, they looked carefully at the advisories about ad content. Upon submission, the ad resulted in a response from Facebook that noted “ad sets that use targeting terms related to social, religious or political reviews may require additional review” and also saying that “it looks like your ad may be for housing, employment or credit opportunities.”

None of these factors really came into play with the Assassins ad, so NextStop opted to take Facebook up on their offer of a manual review, since that would show that they hadn’t run afoul of any of these concerns. But instead, that yielded the denial of approval, but on the grounds that, “Your ad can’t include images that depict a person’s body as ideal or undesirable.”

Facebook’s inconsistencies here are considerable. As it happens, the Assassins ad is composed entirely of still images – many of which have been posted to Facebook by the company without complaint. In fact, the video itself hasn’t been removed from Facebook – but the company isn’t permitted to boost it to a broader audience by using it as an ad, meaning it is only going to be seen if someone seeks it out on their page, or turn up in people’s feeds through organic reach, known to be fairly limiting for those with company pages that don’t advertise.

Does the Assassins ad have an attractive woman in it? Yes, Mackenzie Newbury, who plays The Proprietor. Is she idealized? That’s a judgment, but the ad doesn’t present her as a paragon of anything, except perhaps as a representation of America and Americana, with her red, white and blue outfit. There is a quick tight glimpse of her lips, a flash of thigh, but they’re not particularly salacious; some might rightly view this as objectification – and if that is being eradicated from Facebook then it must be applied consistently. But certainly Facebook runs more expensively and slickly produced ads with attractive women in them.

Arts Integrity has reached out to the press office at Facebook for an explanation of what has transpired with the NextStop ad, and received a response saying that the issue was being explored and they would respond as soon as possible. The best possible response would be for them to say that upon further review, the NextStop ad has been cleared.

Over the years, social media platforms have often taken the position that they are merely conduits, and not responsible for what is posted unless something is clearly illegal. But now that it has been shown how the services can be manipulated, it’s important that ad content is vetted and content complaints are investigated. But they also need to take care that in policing their house and addressing violations of their terms of service, they’re not preventing individuals and companies that rely on them for their livelihoods are getting caught up in nets meant to capture bad actors, and not good theatre companies.

Update, October 20, 4 pm: Three hours after Arts Integrity’s initial e-mail to Facebook’s press office, two hours after Arts Integrity was informed that the issue of the NextStop ad for Assassins would be looked into, and one hour after this post went live, NextStop was notified that their ad had been accepted and would begin to run.

There was no further response to Arts Integrity about the issues that led to the ad being blocked.

Update, October 21, 7 am: Last evening, shortly after 7 pm, NextStop was again notified by Facebook that its ad has been disapproved.

This follows a 6:30 pm e-mail from Facebook’s PR department to Arts Integrity noting that the ad had been approved, and that on Monday, the press contact could “explain what has happened here.”

Update, October 22, 2017 11 am: Following yesterday’s disapproval, Matthew Thompson discovered, on Facebook’s desktop interface, a more detailed explanation of why the ad had been denied. It read:

“Your ad wasn’t approved because ads should clearly reflect the product or service being advertised rather than focus on a body part (ex: teeth, abs, acne). Using images of zoomed-in body parts typically evokes a negative reaction from viewers. Learn more about our Advertising Policies.
How to fix: We suggest promoting your product or service without using a zoomed-in body image.
If you think your ad follows our Advertising Policies, you can appeal this disapproval.”
Thompson responded as follows, using the “Appeal Button”:
While the ad fleetingly (less than 3 seconds out of 30) uses stylized zooming to capture the actress’ engrossed facial expression and details of the sparkles on her costume, the focus of the ad is theatre seats and playing with a toy gun. This ad clearly reflects the product being advertised: a show about America set in a carnival shooting gallery.
After a short time, he was once again notified that the ad was approved.
On Sunday morning, October 22, Thompson heard from Facebook once again, to reaffirm the approval of the ad, as follows:

Thank you for notifying us about your ad disapproval. We’ve reviewed your ad again and have determined it complies with our policies. Your ad is now approved. Your ad is now active and will start delivering soon. You can track your results in Facebook Ads Manager. Have a great day!

Given the carnival atmosphere of the ad in question, one might wish to simply chalk this up as a comedy of errors. But it is a microcosm of the challenges of having information consolidated within the control of too few hands, especially when the ability to communicate is arbitrarily or erratically denied. While this instance pertains to arts marketing, across the massive universe of Facebook, it’s impossible to know what else might be getting censored, and how such situations are – or are not – being resolved.

This post will be updated the situation warrants.