Facebook: Sometimes it’s Easier to Ask Permission Than to Beg Forgiveness

The other day I reviewed David Berkowitz’s dilemma regarding being the subject of an ad that changed him from a “fan” of Blockbuster on Facebook to a brand spokesperson. The post at David’s Blog has garnered over 70 comments, and he has asked for some of us to further comment in a post that just been published.

It’s interesting that this situation has generated such a fire storm. Just a few months ago, I ran into David at a party. I don’t really remember what he was wearing, but just for arguments sake, let’s put him in a Ralph Lauren Polo Shirt, Gap Jeans, and Nike Sneakers. Is David a fan of these items? Does he endorse them? Is he advertising for these brands? If I think, “Hey, David looks really good in that Polo shirt, I’m going to get one of those tomorrow” then yes, he is, even if he doesn’t know it.

So, what’s the huge difference between this advertising situation and this? :

I’ll give you something else to think about. Some people love brands so much they pimp them for free. They brag about using those products or services. I’m sure if you know me well you’ve heard me talk about Nordstrom and how well they’ve treated me over the years. I have several stories. (Of course, if you read my blog, you’ll also know why you should never buy a Toyota at Prestige Toyota of Ramsey). Some brands generate so much interest and loyalty, they are called “Lovemarks.” People clamor to be associated with them.

The difference in this case, and why so many of us got in a tizzy about the Facebook ad situation is permission.

  • David (and others) didn’t sign up to be brand ambassadors of Blockbuster.
  • Blockbuster didn’t make it clear that they’d use Fans in ads.
  • Facebook set up a system that didn’t have clear opt-ins or opt-outs or even clear terms of use.

Even now, I’m not sure what I’m signing up for by being a fan – so I’m only a fan of one brand – Union Square Ventures. I know Fred Wilson won’t screw me over, and if he decides to put me in an ad campaign, well, I know where to find him to discuss it. (I’d probably enjoy it anyway).

So the clear lesson is, let people know what they’re getting into, whenever they are signing up for something. Services that do so avoid the headlines, like this one from the NY Times: “Apologetic, Facebook Changes Ad Program.”

It may be better to ask forgiveness than to ask for permission in some contexts, but ‘d suggest this one isn’t such a context. If you had asked customers for permission in the first place, this whole story, and possibly this whole Facebook program could have turned out differently.