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365: How Some Auctioneers Are Playing with Fire(arms)

Recently, my clients and auction industry peers have seen more ads denied by Facebook. The reason? The ads don’t comply with Facebook’s policies on firearms. What you need to know is that none of the ads in question included any images or mentions of guns, ammunition, hunting, or even “sporting goods.”

I’ll explain why in a little bit, but first I want to briefly show you how we got to this moment.

In Facebook’s first three years, it offered little-to-no paid advertising and thus little-to-no advertiser limitations. Organic content multiplied mostly with user policing through content reporting.

In 2007, Facebook started selling their user base to advertisers. Restrictions developed for drugs, prescription drugs, tobacco products, questionable supplements, and “adult products or services.” Societal, political, and user influence eventually pushed Facebook to put age restrictions on content for firearms in March 2014.

Twenty-two months later (January 2016), Facebook banned all private sales and commercial promotion of firearms transactions. While Facebook permitted personal posts regarding firearms and business pages & posts related to firearms, paid promotion began being disallowed with few exceptions sneaking through the cracks.

As advertisers tried different tactics to skirt the system, Facebook added to its purview. More euphemisms got added to the banned list of terms. Eventually, Facebook’s automated tools began searching the web pages to which all ads were linked. Any firearms image or reference on the other end of those links got those links black-flagged for any paid advertising.

Facebook timeline

That’s how my clients’ ads for lawn mowers, antique tractors, and comic books couldn’t be published. Estate sales, farm liquidations, and other auctions with guns anywhere in their catalogs couldn’t be advertised on Facebook because of the gun lots they contained. I even tried linking to a single item in the auction and to a page of search results in an auction catalog that would exclude the lots that had guns in them. No dice.

Facebook next step?As of right now, the best way to advertise an auction with guns is to create a separate catalog for the guns. This way, you can run Facebook ads for the other lots that will sell or sell higher because of Facebook exposure. The gun catalog can be promoted separately via email, direct mail, newsprint, etc. (Lists of both gun dealers and people with hunting licenses are not only available but reasonably priced.)

This is a hassle but nowhere near as big as the hurdle the auction industry might be facing. As you can see in this January 2017 featured answer in Facebook’s Advertiser Help Center, the potential next step in this progression will be for Facebook to refuse links from entire websites or Facebook business pages that have any objectionable material.

What this could mean is that any past auction lot could get your entire site black-flagged from any future Facebook advertising. This is an extreme forecast; and as a Facebook marketing vendor, I hope I’m wrong. At this time, it’s only conjecture; but it’s enough of a possibility that we should be preparing for that potential. That means:

• wiping past auction catalogs that contain gun content,

• moving your firearms to a separate website,

• branding your firearms sales separately, and/or

• partnering with a gun dealer for completely separate firearm transactions

Critics of Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, have pushed against his pragmatic, libertarian approach to the content on Facebook. It has taken international tragedies and media firestorms for Zuckerberg to introduce more policing, more human content reviewers. [Many would be surprised to know that Zuckerberg’s personal political contributions skew Republican (58% to Democrat 42%—to four Republican candidates and two Democrat candidates), as do Facebook’s political action committee’s contributions (56% Republican, 44% Democrat).] 1 Restrictions that took thirteen years to put in place are most likely not going to be reversed, at least not anytime soon.

What’s very clear is that Facebook isn’t getting more gun friendly. Social, legal, and governmental pressure keeps mounting on Facebook, Twitter, and Google. 2 Courts have validated that Facebook’s restrictions do not infringe on first or second amendment rights. This genie isn’t going back in the bottle.

While separating guns (including non-firearm versions like glue-, spray-, and barcode guns) from other lots will be a difficult task, it could spare more draconian remedies down the road. Even if you decide not to make any of these preventative changes now, make sure you’re at least having the conversation with staff, partners, vendors, and/or even your elected officials. An ounce of prevention just might prove a pound of cure.

1Is Mark Zuckerberg a Democrat or a Republican?” Tom Murse, ThoughtCo.com, March 25, 2017.

210 more Pulse nightclub plaintiffs join lawsuit against Google, Facebook, Twitter” Jared Morgan, Guns.com, April 5, 2017.

Stock photo purchased from iStockPhoto.com.

2 comments

  • Blaine

    Thanks Ryan, I wonder if Facebook will still suspend our accounts even if they see the separate gun catalog on the main site.

    We had recently shared a fellow auction company’s gun sale and they put one of my ads on hold (not our whole account). I appealed the hold on the particular campaign explaining that this link didn’t promote gun sales and they immediately lifted it.

    We don’t sell guns too often but will be loading them in their own catalogs from now on. On the Facebook ads, I usually have it go to our Intro page of that particular auction instead of the catalog itself. However, if they look at our main domain and see those guns listed in the separate sale, they might still ban us.

    • ryplane

      Yep. I think that’s the next step. I think auctioneers need to transition firearms to separate websites.

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