Facebook Says My Ads Are “Against Their Advertising Policies,” What Should I Do?

If you’ve managed Facebook advertising campaigns, you’ve likely gotten the dreaded “Some of your ads are disapproved” email which abruptly states:

Some of your ads aren’t approved because they don’t comply with our Advertising Policies. See why it wasn’t approved, then make changes…

These days, 80–90% of advertising placement approvals/disapprovals are done algorithmically, only the appeals are human (if you can call template responses by Facebook’s interns “human”). While some disapprovals can be successfully appealed with a strategically worded inquiry, those seeking to market what Facebook deems “Prohibited Content” is a different story.

Facebook’s Advertising Policies regarding products and services they define as ‘Prohibited Content’ (Marijuana, Guns, Pornography, etc.) are strict and their enforcement is often ruthless. Just as bootleggers and speakeasies developed thriving businesses during prohibition, you too can capitalize around these restrictions without breaking them.

You don’t need to exploit loopholes, manipulate algorithms, or bribe Facebook employees to overcome these hurdles. (well, you can… but it’s not recommend by me). You just need to ask yourself a single, simple question:

How can my greatest weakness become my greatest strength?

Skirting The Rules

The need for marketing processes that were to be effective within Facebook’s prohibitions first became apparent while developing the traffic strategy for ‘StonerMovies.net’, a humorous niche affiliate website, which capitalized on the profitable intersection of ‘public interest’ and ‘weak competition’.

In the early days of StonerMovies.net (circa 2011) the rules were admittedly much different (and easier to skirt), Facebook’s instant disapproval of my first advertising placements prompted the question, “how did their algorithm know my advertisements were marketing Prohibited Content (i.e. marijuana paraphernalia)?” The answer was seemingly simple, many of my headlines included words like ‘vaporizer’ and ‘marijuana’ which were presumably on their blacklist. To test this theory, I created new placements that used terms more challenging to clearly identify; terms like ‘Volcano’ referenced the Volcano Vaporizer (which had previously been the answer to my question, “what’s the most expensive marijuana related item that I can legally sell?”, (i.e. the biggest commission) and ‘Cheech and Chong’ which referenced the pop culture masterpiece with which only pot smokers would resonate.

This worked for a few months before Facebook’s algorithm evolved and was able to identify Prohibited Content by scraping the destination website for the same language. When the platform changes, so too do the strategies.

Loopholes that become widely used are just as quickly closed.

You can leverage loopholes, but you should expect their utility will be temporary and once the cops come to shut down the party… run. If you’ve become too drunk on your own entitlement, you’ll be arrested (i.e. banned).

Skirting the rules often results in the creation of new rules.

Making The Rules

I’ll often proudly brag about the byline in Facebook’s Advertising Policies that was written because of me pranking my roommate with Facebook ads. For those unfamiliar with the story, I managed to drive my roommate to a state of paranoia by using passively referenced personal information. While the prank was in jest, the same loophole could have been used for bullying, harassment, etc. so Facebook—in an effort to protect their users—closed it.

Social platforms and search engines alike are only able to ‘fix’ holes in their system once they are exploited by enough people to become apparent. By publicly highlighting the loophole of single person audiences, they were able to patch it well before being found and exploited in more nefarious ways.

The term “white hat” in Internet slang refers to an ethical hacker who specializes in penetration testing to exploit systems, strengthen systems, and ultimately ensure the security of an organization’s systems. (via Wikipedia)

In the years since, an army of marketing colleagues have accused me of killing my golden goose. Over drinks, they’ll often sell me on their “better” strategy to monetize my knowledge and story through the authoring of an e-book with some cheesy title like, ‘How To Close Gargantuan Sales By Laser Targeting Your Ideal Customers’ and selling it for an obnoxious price*.

The reality is that being the individual to highlight this exploit became the fulcrum to my career, catalyzed the blossoming of a community, and has generated a consistent flow of opportunities since it was published in 2014.

Sometimes you can profit more by closing loopholes than using them.

*I still utilize a derivation of this targeting strategy today (2017) to raise millions of dollars in venture funding, convert billion dollar software deals, and global currencies [evil laughter]. It’s also nifty for hitting high school classmates with press clippings about you in the weeks leading up to your ten year reunion, but… you’ll have to join Ghost Influence for that story.

Following The Rules

Facebook is constantly updating their Advertising Policies to further protect their users and ensure they spend as much time within the platform as possible. When they make these updates, they issue press releases and publish them to their newsroom. They’ll typically detail feature changes along with the notions that catalyzed their development.

As an example, let’s talk about clickbait.

Clickbait, a pejorative term, references web content aimed at generating online traffic, especially at the expense of quality or accuracy, relying on sensationalist headlines or eye-catching thumbnail pictures to attract clicks. (via Wikipedia)

Clickbait was a “marketing fad” resemblant of the moment in history when the majority of America thought Beanie Babies were worth paying hundreds of dollars and/or waiting in line for hours. Unlike Beanie Babies, the trend of clickbait was born quickly… but murdered swiftly and ruthlessly.

Plagued by clickbait content, Facebook announced there had been algorithm changes to penalize clickbait content and described their logic as such:

If they click through to a link and then come straight back to Facebook, it suggests that they didn’t find something that they wanted. (via Facebook)

In this press release (as in all others) they are detailing what they changed or added in order to benefit their users and the logic behind the move.

The simple secret to advertising success, follow Facebook’s lead.

If they’re penalizing content that isn’t interesting enough to keep people off from Facebook for more than a few seconds; it can be reasonably assumed that creating content that does keep people off Facebook will be rewarded by their algorithm (i.e. more organic reach within the newsfeed).

Thing is, you as the advertiser don’t need to captivate them for hours… just more than a few seconds. On today’s internet two minutes is an eternity.

“You don’t have to swim faster than the shark, just faster than the guy next to you.” ~ Guy Not Eaten By Shark

Facebook is constantly publishing press releases about feature developments, user trends, and future roadmaps for the platform as a whole. Find the changes that are relevant to your business, reverse engineer what Facebook is penalizing, and you’ll have a framework for successful advertising.

Facebook wants you—the advertiser—to win their game; they make oodles of money when you do. They are giving you the recipes for success, all you have to do is follow them. It’s truly that simple.

Exploited loopholes, algorithm manipulation, and other shifty practices might seem more profitable in the moment, but the time that’s wasted in building (and re-building) your business on an internet fault line quickly outweighs the potential upside. When you factor in the risks of being banned from advertising or having your page deleted, it’s a fools errand.

People who plan to stick around for a while tend to follow the rules.

This is all dandy when you have the ability to follow the rules, but what happens when your business itself—not your advertising practices—is the policy violation? This is the hurdle Andres De Abreu (@jadabreu) inquired about when his question in Ghost Influence prompted this resource.

Andres shared,

I’m the owner of Falkogear, a small brand selling tactical accessories online, Facebook won’t let me utilize their advertising platform because I sell products used for gun cleaning (and I plan to sell scopes and other gun accessories later).

There’s nothing illegal or immoral (in my opinion) about the act of selling gun cleaning products on the internet, but… it’s against Facebook’s policies.

To Andreas and those with businesses in the same predicament (especially entrepreneurs in the budding marijuana industry), here’s my magic solution:

There is no magic solution, stop looking.

Teaching you how to appeal to the algorithms that govern social platforms would be like painting a 2" target on a bullet train, it’d be relevant for a uselessly short moment in time. Instead, I’m going to teach you a thought process to utilize when navigating turbulent seas by developing a strategy that’s unique to your business and the moment in time you’re implementing.

Fit your square peg in Facebook’s round hole.

This is basically the internet marketing equivalent of the “I’m not touching you, I’m not touching you” game you used to torture your siblings as kids.

Let’s use Andres’ business, Falkogear, as an example.

Facebook’s Advertising Policies detail the rules for firearm related ads in the ‘Weapons, Ammunition, or Explosives’ section of their Prohibited Content:

Ok, you can’t sell guns or gun products… but you can connect people with weapon-related discussions and events so long as they don’t lead to a sale. That’s what’s allowed (the round hole) so how do we fit our square peg?

The question now becomes, “how can Andres develop an audience through weapons-related discussions and/or events, but convert them separately?”

Here are a few ways:

  • Create an online publisher of weapons related content and do product giveaways to develop an email list, then convert the email list by email.
  • Partner with existing communities like All Guns, Awesome Weapons, etc. to offer their fans a giveaway, develop an email list, and sell to the list.
  • Advertise website content that’s not weapons-related, but targeted at the same audience. Content like self-defense, precision engineering, etc.

The bottom line is that by reading Facebook’s Advertising Policies in detail we can see that they require that “ads must not promote the sale or use of weapons, ammunition, or explosives” … but it’s perfectly acceptable for ads to promote content about weapons, ammunition, or explosives on a website that doesn’t sell weapons-related products, but happens to have a newsletter.

This means that Andres can create an ancillary, content focused, brand that exists solely to develop an email list… and he can sell to that email list of prospective customers through email (not Facebook); on his terms.

Facebook’s policy (in this instance) is just requiring that the discussion and purchase not both be on their platform. It would be a bit like trying to have sex on a first date while you’re still at the bar—it’s frowned upon. Just ask, “would like to come back to my place for a drink?”; the interest is implied.

Besides, it’s far more respectful to propose and negotiate the conversion from date to mate (or from prospect to customer) in a more intimate setting.

The moral, stop swimming upstream and go with the current.

This resource was created as an answer to Andres De Abreu’s (@jadabreu) question asked in Ghost Influence. To request answers of your own and have access to the mountain of others that have been asked, join today.