Facebook blocks ads for new tree-planting initiative at 2 Oakville car dealerships

The general manager of two car dealerships in Oakville, Ont., is struggling to promote a new environmental initiative on Facebook after the platform rejected his ads twice — for two different reasons.

Ads were rejected first for being too political, then for featuring too much text

Greg Carrasco had hoped that by now, ads promoting the new environmental initiative at his two car dealerships in Oakville, Ont., would be spreading far and wide on Facebook and Instagram. (Greg Carrasco/Facebook)

The general manager of two car dealerships in Oakville, Ont., is in a multi-round battle with Facebook over his efforts to promote a new environmental initiative. 

Greg Carrasco, vice-president of operations and general manager at Oakville Infiniti and Oakville Nissan, has pledged to plant 25 trees for every car he sells.

Inspired by his teenage daughter to take more responsibility for the emissions that cars create, "it was decided we were going to do 13,000 trees by the end of [2020], which is a huge endeavour," he told CBC Toronto. 

The trouble started when his efforts to promote Facebook and Instagram ads about the tree-planting campaign were blocked — twice.

This is the image that appeared on Instagram last week and was blocked as an advertisement. (Oakvillenissan/Instagram)

First, Facebook told him he couldn't promote the ads because they were too political, which Carrasco called "bizarre" given their content. 

They've since reversed that decision, but the platform is now blocking him because there's too much text in his ads. 

"We are just a car dealership that wants to get involved in a good cause," he told CBC Toronto. 

"I feel that Facebook has taken an arbitrary look at this and changed their tune." 

New protections brought in for election

The back-and-forth began last week when Carrasco first posted his ads on Facebook and Instagram (Instagram is owned by Facebook). 

Within hours, the platforms notified him the ads could not be promoted because they dealt with "social issues, elections, or politics." 

Carrasco appealed to both Facebook and Instagram, but got the same response: he was allowed to post the ads on his accounts, but still couldn't pay to have them placed in other people's feeds. 

He said that after hundreds of campaigns on Facebook and Instagram, he has never had a problem with one of his advertisements before. 

Kurt Dettbarn, whose agency Design Cellar Media worked on the ads, said the two men were baffled. 

"We just didn't see the political angle on this one, unless the word climate is so toxic that it is entirely political now."

After an inquiry by CBC Toronto a few days later, Facebook  said it had "disapproved the ad in error." 

The social media company pointed to the stringent protections rolled out ahead of this October's federal election — including the requirement that anyone posting an ad relating to "environmental politics" complete a special authorization process

"We apologize for the error and have let the advertiser know we are approving their ad," said a Facebook spokesperson. 

A second sticking point

But a day after that reversal, Carrasco still isn't able to promote his posts, this time because they contain too much text. 

Facebook ads are governed by detailed rules, and include prohibitions on everything from advertising weapons to using before-and-after images. 

Also on their list? A requirement that text in ads be limited, with the platform advising the use of "little or no image text when possible." 

Facebook told CBC Toronto that ad creators have the option to request a manual review if they believe their content was flagged by mistake, which Carrasco says he's already done. 

"It's a very ambiguous rule," said Carrasco. "And it changes depending on the ad. I've experimented with many, many different formats, and this is the first time that an ad like this gets declined." 

'You want someone doing that work' 

CBC Toronto reached out to other professionals who advertise on Facebook to gauge their experiences.

Michelene Maguire, managing director for the Maguire Marketing Group, has had her clients' ads paused, reviewed and rejected before.   

She likens the experience of appealing the platform's decisions to going through airport security. 

"Is it fair who gets to go through? I don't know, and sometimes it can be really frustrating. But at the same time you want someone doing that work."

Kyle Smendziuk, CEO of WebMarketers, said he has seen a change in the platform's rigorous standards ever since Facebook faced questions from the U.S. government in spring 2018 after the Cambridge Analytica data scandal

Like Maguire, he has had ads rejected, and said that about half the time, his team will remake the ads to fit Facebook's requirements. He acknowledged the whole process can be opaque. 

"My guess is that the vast majority of people when something is not approved, they just give up."

Carrasco, however, is not giving up. 

He's still considering redoing his ad and resubmitting it to Facebook and Instagram, but also said he'll take some of his money elsewhere so the ad can be featured on other platforms, such as YouTube. 

"This is not going to deter us," he said.

"I have a moral obligation to contribute, to offset our carbon footprint. I'm not an environmentalist. I'm just a businessman trying to do the right thing."