Like Stuff On Facebook? Say Cheese, You’re An Ad!

January 26th, 2011 | Shonali Burke | 35 Comments

What’s the buzz, tell me what’s happening

Yesterday’s social media storm-in-the-making (or so it seems to me) was about the fact that Facebook can now turn your “likes” into ads.

This is what Ad Age had to say about it (and thanks to Kathy Moore for tipping me off):

The ubiquitous “like” is currency for brands, and Facebook is giving them a new way to collect: an ad unit that shows up on the right-hand side of the screen it calls “sponsored stories.”

The unit will give brand-related action such as a “like” or a check-in a lot more visibility on Facebook by adding them to an ad unit in addition to users’ news feeds.

For example, if Starbucks buys a “sponsored story” ad, the status of a user’s friends who check into or “like” Starbucks will run twice: once in the user’s news feed, and again as a paid ad for Starbucks. Though clearly marked with the words “sponsored story,” the ad — which will includes a user’s name, just like the news feed — is not optional for Facebook users.

Apparently there are four ways

marketers and brands can turn your Facebook activity into ads, as Ad Age tells us:

1. When you “like” a page;

2. When you check in to a place on Facebook;

3. What Facebook calls an “application play,” i.e. when you used an application to do something; and

4. A “page post,” i.e. when an advertiser buys a “sponsored story” to further distribute something they’ve posted on their page – so it goes into your news feed and in the ads you see on the right sidebar.

(Ad Age didn’t say this, but I assume #4 applies only if you’ve already “liked” that page.)

You can see more about this in the Facebook video on the subject (and I thought it was interesting that there’s no way you can embed this in a blog post, but whatever…)


That means that I’ve been mulling over this a lot – a LOT! – and I still don’t know if this is good or bad, or a bit of both.

At least five things to think about

1. This seems to try to put a twist on Twitter’s much-ballyhooed “promoted tweets,” which received more than its fair share of attention.

Me, personally, I could care less about the promoted tweets. First, because I rarely use Twitter’s web interface, and second, because the minute I see a “promoted tweet,” even if it’s on HootSuite, I pretty much tune it out.

2. These “sponsored stories” will only appear in the news feeds, and sidebar ads, of your Facebook friends, based on your privacy settings.

If you haven’t already tweaked your settings, I suggest you do that. It’s just commonsense.

Now, I don’t pay attention to Facebook ads to begin with. I can see how they are useful, but I’m just not an “ad” person (I’m sure I’m in the minority).

But if it shows up in the news feed of one of my Facebook friends, is that somewhat misleading, even if it has “sponsored story” attached to it?

I don’t know just yet, since I haven’t seen any. But it seems that could be one cause for confusion and potential backlash.

3. This could backfire on marketers.

Image: Asthma Helper via Flickr, CC 2.0

There are many reasons we “like” a Facebook page.

Sometimes it’s because we want to be nice to the person who asked us to “like” it,

sometimes it’s because we really like the brand; but

sometimes it’s because we hate a brand/organization so much that we want to share our vituperation.

The only way to do that on an official Facebook page is to “like” a brand… and then post away!

Just imagine the ads that might appear with absolutely terrible things being said about the brand.

(Jen Zingsheim pointed this out to me on Facebook as well.)

And if you’re liking someone’s check-in, for example, are you really liking the fact that they checked in to such-and-such place, or you liking the fact that they are doing something they care enough about to share with you?

And if it’s the latter, are you really going to pay attention to the “sponsored story” part of it? And if not, what’s the point?

4. If a company is going to make money off my “likes,” shouldn’t I get a piece of the pie, as Beth Harte said (and I agree) on Facebook?

And, yes, I’m aware of the irony.

5. This is the most interesting part of the whole thing: while you can determine which of your friends sees what, based on your privacy settings, what you cannot do is opt out of your “likes” being used as ads.

Yes. You read that right.

You cannot opt out of your activity being turned into advertisements.

Nope. Nada. Zilch.

Doesn’t it call to mind the Flickr-Virgin Mobile brouhaha from a few years ago? Granted, the case eventually went nowhere, but I couldn’t help but be reminded of it.

Might this affect how many pages you “like,” or whether you stop “liking” pages at all?

Public domain or not?

I had an interesting exchange with my friend Matt LaCasse on Twitter. Matt felt that since anything we post is in the “public domain,” it’s fair game.

(And kudos to Matt for understanding that differing professional opinions do not personal denigration entail.)

But it’s not.

What we post on Facebook is not in the public domain. That means something completely different.

When I looked up Facebook’s Terms of Service about who owns content that is posted, here’s what it says, specifically about sharing one’s content and information:

Sharing Your Content and Information

You own all of the content and information you post on Facebook, and you can control how it is shared through your privacy and application settings. In addition:

  1. For content that is covered by intellectual property rights, like photos and videos (“IP content”), you specifically give us the following permission, subject to your privacy and application settings: you grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook (“IP License”). This IP License ends when you delete your IP content or your account unless your content has been shared with others, and they have not deleted it.
  2. When you delete IP content, it is deleted in a manner similar to emptying the recycle bin on a computer. However, you understand that removed content may persist in backup copies for a reasonable period of time (but will not be available to others).
  3. When you use an application, your content and information is shared with the application. We require applications to respect your privacy, and your agreement with that application will control how the application can use, store, and transfer that content and information.  (To learn more about Platform, read our Privacy Policy and Platform Page.)
  4. When you publish content or information using the “everyone” setting, it means that you are allowing everyone, including people off of Facebook, to access and use that information, and to associate it with you (i.e., your name and profile picture).
  5. We always appreciate your feedback or other suggestions about Facebook, but you understand that we may use them without any obligation to compensate you for them (just as you have no obligation to offer them).

Where’s the problem?

You own the content and information you post on Facebook (according to Facebook).

Facebook requires applications to respect your privacy (according to Facebook).

You’re giving Facebook the right to use any content you post on its site any way it pleases – even though you own it – pretty much forever, unless you police all your friends and ensure they delete any content associated with you if/when you delete your content/account (according to Facebook).

And you don’t have to be paid royalties for it (according to Facebook).

So, in essence, you can control how your content is shared… unless Facebook decides otherwise.

Image: Rafael Peñazola via Flickr, CC 2.0

Where do “likes” fit into this?

From what I can tell – and, again, I’m not a lawyer – they’re not “IP” as such. They’re an action you’re taking, on Facebook, but who’s to say whether that’s protected by IP or not?

When I asked Lisa Dunner of Dunner Law – a friend as well as Women Grow Business (disclosure: client) blogger – what she thought about this, she said:

“Facebook’s latest ‘marketing solution’ in the form of its new ‘Sponsored Stories’ offering is troubling at least.

“While word of mouth recommendations and endorsements are golden to a business, Facebook’s unauthorized use of a person’s identity, in the form of a ‘like’ as part of a business’s paid for sponsored ad raises privacy concerns.

“One who ‘likes’ another’s good or service will be handing over one’s identity to the marketer, without any say as to how one’s identity will be used; in what context one’s identity will be used and for what duration one’s identity will be used.

“The fact that the Internet – and Facebook – have created a very public avenue for communication and disclosures does not necessitate the legal conclusion that all discourse and content on the Internet is in the public domain; quite the contrary, in fact.” [italicization and bolding mine]

It will be interesting to see how all this plays out.

Now, I have absolutely no problem with Facebook making money. I like that it’s free, and I would prefer to see it stay free. And in order for that to happen, Facebook has to find a way to make money.

But at what point does monetizing what is, no doubt, a remarkable networking platform, that has changed our world in ways we could not have imagined even a decade ago, take precedence over simple, human decency?

Or will it ever?

You tell me. What do you think? Am I overreacting? Or is this a hint of (more) things to come?

Shonali Burke
Head honcho of Waxing UnLyrical, Shonali Burke is President & CEO of Shonali Burke Consulting, Inc. Based in the Washington, D.C., area, she loves helping for- and non-profit clients, both small and large, turn corporate codswallop into community cool™. She also loves ABBA, bacon, cooking, dogs, and Elvis. Wouldn't you like to be in her kitchen?
Shonali Burke
Shonali Burke
Shonali Burke

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@Shonali I am annoyed but not surprised for many reasons like @hackmanj and others mentioned. I'm all for FB making their money but it seems to be at the expense, the frustration of its users. What gets me, even though I attempt to navigate the labyrinth of controls FB calls privacy settings every time they change the rules.. is the apparent lack of "opt out" for this.

Was just talking to someone about this, yet another person wanting off of FB b/c of the lack of control, not just privacy. Yes if I click a LIKE button that is an active choice and I'm aware friends can see that. People can see if I post a comment on a wall, upload a picture or video... the people I've selected. Now Brand X can use my comment as part of their promotion, w/out my permission? Or it's assumed or implied? Like @BethHarte mentioned.. If it is MY endorsement that works, where's my cut? Other side, I'm sure tweets are used and RT all the time, promoting brands. IDK.. will keep an eye out, see what happens.


I already am fairly strict about how sees my stuff on FB. Now I'm going to review my privacy settings to see if I need to become ever more strict. Thanks for this informative piece.


I'm with you here Shonali. I'm all for facebook staying around and they have to make money somehow, but what at expense? I find it extremely weird that people can't opt out of this.
Maybe it's one thing if I "like" a companies page (which I rarely, if ever, do anyways) because I've entered their "home" on facebook. However, if I hapen to check in at somewhere I am in real life, I've really had no interaction with that brand what-so-ever and find it weird that they could use that to then advertise to my friends.
I've been thinking a lot about this stuff as well since I heard about it yesterday and have still yet to collect all my thoughts and possible implications of it, but it still seems kind of strange to me (but in a smart marketing kind of way).

Sheldon, community manager for Sysomos (


This is going to be very interesting to watch and appears to me to be a misuse of my information. I am with you on the reasons people "like" pages and it's not always because we want to endorse them but instead might want to monitor or complain. I can see this backfiring on Facebook or with its advertisers fairly quickly. At the same time, I'm a little concerned about Facebook presuming to have my persmission to do things without asking. Have they become such an institution in our lives we can't do without them? Or, will actions such as this cause people to turn away from Facebook.

I think the next few months/years will be interesting to watch in social media. Personally, I'm starting to see more and more stories about our need to disconnect and return to inter-personal communication, etc. How will SM evolve and able to address these concerns?


Facebook is going to constantly challenge and test our patience with privacy, advertising, and true "opt-in". They truly have a culture of lack of concern about privacy. Their objectives first, our privacy/participation second. They just don't care unless people complain loudly. I am glad you wrote this Shonali, it is an excellent education on an important issue. There is no doubt in my mind that they will not change without lawsuits forcing the matter or plenty of loud pissed off customers. Expect them to continue to hit that button...


Oy...this just makes my head hurt to think about (all the implications, changes, what it means, etc). The one thing I do know is that no matter what Facebook does, until something better comes along (or something with better privacy policies), we're kind of stuck accepting waht they do.


I guess the one thing I keep coming back to is the people who "like" a page to complain, and now they--possibly significant detractors--are going to essentially be turned into advertising vehicles? It just seems like that might tick them off even more. I also think this way of essentially "strong-arming" word-of-mouth from people isn't, well, very social. At all.


I am a bit appalled personally. I think it most definitely violates my rights to have a third party post on my behalf whenever it chooses. I like to think of it this way...I have some amazing friends that I trust with the world but I don't give them my Facebook password and just say "Hey whenever you want to post something to benefit you just go ahead and do it." I see the opportunities it presents for businesses but I DO NOT think it's okay that you are unable to opt out of this.

Social media in essence is supposed to be a two-way conversation, it is supposed to be about fostering relationships...if a business wants to take the time to to do this with me and I just so happen to promote or write a status update about them because I FEEL LIKE IT then so be it - that's the point of social media. To me this seems to be forcing us into a corner and I don't like not having a choice in the matter - in something that has MY name linked to it. Unfortunately, I think the negative impact for businesses may be that people decided just not to "like" them at all.

Thanks for a great post and making me think as usual @shonali !

Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

A couple of notes here. I think the number of Brand Page Likes per user per month is single digits. But obviously number of Likes on those pages is higher. But as a percentage of Fans on a page as I have blogged about in the past the number of Fans taking action (Liking or Commenting) on a Brand page runs less than 0.03% of fans on average. In aggregate they will ad up. But say Starbucks has 18mil fans out of probably 300mil customers world wide. They get between 100 and 300 posts to their fan page per day. Most saying "i love your latte'. Depending on how many Ads that generates it could cost starbucks a lot of money since ads cost around $0.25 each. Starbucks best advertising is Free. Its the sign on the front of the coffee shop!

That said the only thing that works so far for Brands on Facebook is Facebook Ads. So they should try to capitalize on this as their one potential saving grace. Secondly I use Firefox so I will see zero fo these advertisements because I block Ads on Facebook. When I see traffic data for my own site and for a clients 30% of the browsers potentially could block the ads. I know the AdOn gets downloaded almost 1 million times per week.

Will be curious how this goes.


Matt, I would agree with you that we all need to be aware that posting content and opinions on the Internet makes those posts easily accessible by anyone. It is, however, quite a different story from a legal perspective that one can freely use another's content without the owner's permission. What makes this new Facebook situation an interesting and more difficult legal case, is determining whether a "like" falls into the "content" category. Further adding to the difficulties is the use of the "liker's" name in a paid for ad. It would be one thing if a marketer referenced the fact that 100 people liked a product, but to use the names of the "likers" is a different ballgame, especially when the marketer is using the names to potentially profit - albeit indirectly - from the sale of its goods or services. Just my two legal cents...


That's an interesting legal opinion. I think my opinion stems from my years of being a radio broadcaster. While I'd never be so bold as to claim the "celebrity" tag, I was used to people knowing who I was without me knowing them. I lived my life, mostly, in the public eye. As a result, I have less problems with "invasions of privacy" than others do.

I still hold the opinion that if you don't want Facebook using your information to make money, or to not have your information transferred or looked at without your consent, you should probably just not be on Facebook. If I make a nice comment about my favorite TV or radio station on their blog/website, and they then use that in a promotional piece, I don't see that as being too far off of what Facebook is doing. Obviously, Facebook is a unique situation since there's nothing else like Facebook out there.

Again, I'm much more comfortable with my information being public than many others are, it's why I'm always in the minority when it comes to this particular topic. But, as I've always said, we all know what we're signing up for when we log in to Facebook. I don't have a problem with it.

Shonali moderator

@3HatsComm @hackmanj @BethHarte Davina, I haven't looked at the promoted tweets too closely, but from what I remember, they seem to be much more clearly identifiable as promotional. What is a little frightening about this move, to me at least, is how sneaky it is. IMHO.

Shonali moderator

@Alexandrafunfit Afer he read this, my husband asked me to help him tweak his privacy settings. I thought - success! :p

Shonali moderator

@40deuce I think a boon for marketers, Sheldon, but it will be interesting to see how it plays out.

Shonali moderator

@mdbarber It's been what... a week or so now? So far, I've seen some of these ads appear in the right sidebar, but I haven't seen any in my news stream. Of course, I've also been offline for much of the last week. When I saw the ads, I did have a little extra urge to click through and see what that "sponsor" was, but I didn't, because I already knew what they were trying to do. But I guess that part of it is working, at least so far.

I still think this blows from a privacy point of view. But I honestly don't know if it will make a difference unless enough people get enraged and make a huge big ruckus over it - which so far, at least, doesn't seem to be happening.


@Shonali @munishgandhi that makes sense Shonali, they need to hire some privacy champions. Maybe I should approach them about doing some consulting. ;)

Shonali moderator

@hackmanj I think it was @munishgandhi who said to me a while back that FB makes changes that are great from a developer's point of view and not the end-user... because they're full of developers. That made a lot of sense to me, though now that they've been around a few years, you'd think they'd have figured out the "listening" part of things as well.

Shonali moderator

@kirstenwright Also, we who work in PR/SM/Comms tend to be the loud voices... and in the grand scheme of things, we're not that many. I think it would take a LOT of people to be really PO'd about this for them to make any kind of change.

Shonali moderator

@jenzings Apparently there is an option for companies to work around that, but yea, I can totally see how that would tick them off even more.

The irony of Facebook is that so many of their moves are not social. They are probably great developments from the technical side of things but how long have we been complaining about what FB gets up to? If they were going to get it, they'd have gotten it by now. I would really like to get inside Mark Zuckerberg's head for a bit, though I don't know how long I'd last and maintain my sanity!

Shonali moderator

@rachaelseda Well, thank YOU for stopping by and sharing your opinion1

The interesting thing is that third-party apps do post on our behalf, that's why Facebook (and Twitter) make us grant access to each app, but essentially any time I post to Twitter from Amplify, for example, I'm allowing Amplify to post on my behalf. However, we can always revoke that access when we want - and we can't do that (at least right now) with these ads.

I honestly haven't paid much attention to Twitter's "promoted tweets," but from what I could tell when I was looking at them yesterday (and earlier on) is that those are the tweets of a specific company, etc., not of random people whose tweets are being used without their permission. That's what this move on Facebook feels like to me.

It will be very, very interesting to see how all this works out.


@HowieG Good point about the ad blocker. People 1) want their stuff for free 2) get that Google and FB and Hulu have to run ads to make money which is all well and good so long as 3) we can find ways around those ads. I mute them on Hulu or look at another screen; I ignore popups. Like you mentioned with AOL, Netscape.. for every new advertising ploy that comes along, someone will find a way to make money making it easier to ignore. JMO.

Shonali moderator

@HowieG I agree that brands have to try to capitalize on what they can. However, if they start doing so without concern for how their customers are going to react, this could backfire, couldn't it? And right now, at least with this new twist in the Facebook story, people don't even have an option. That's what's sticking in my craw.

If I can opt out of being marketed to via email (though don't even get me started on companies that completely ignore the unsubscribes and keep putting me back on their lists), I should be able to opt out of being marketed to this way... and I should definitely be able to opt out of my Facebook activitiy being used as an ad. That's me speaking as a user. From the brand's point of view, of course they'll do whatever they can - but again, they have to be very careful of how they do it.

What's the add-on you use to block ads on Facebook?

Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

@MattLaCasse @DunnerLaw you might be correct Matt. But remember Yahoo owned search. Apple was almost dead and Microsoft was king. AOL was the Internet. Netscape owned browsing. I can go through every industry and they littered like this. Its not if its when. Could be 2 years. Could be 20 years. But it will happen. We all get bored.

Network usage per person per day is down 30% since April. US unique visitors is flat at 130mil since July.We watch less than 4 videos a month. And we upload 5 photos each per month down from 7.5 each in April.

Today 3 in 4 US consumers will not log into Facebook. And the engagement numbers which their business model depend on are weak. Facebook Ads being the only success so far. That is why I am kind of bullish on this initiative.

If I was them I would kick brands and marketers off and charge a subscription just like we pay for phone service. $3/month from just 300million people They would be a fortune 250 company tomorrow at 10.8bil in sales.


@HowieG @DunnerLaw People don't trust Facebook, this is true. However, it's not like they really trust ANY major corporation out there. I find the predictions of a MySpace-esque end for Facebook to be a little over the top. Facebook is so integrated with ever facet of our web experience at this point, it would be difficult for it to collapse overnight.

I'm NOT saying it can't happen, just that I find it unlikely (no pun intended, I swear). It's cliche to say, but Facebook (and SM in general) has created a fundamental shift in how we communicate. And Facebook is a highly unique entity in all of this. It would take a mass migration away from Facebook to get me off of it. That's less because I really like Facebook, and more because it's a convenient way to keep in touch with people.

Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

@MattLaCasse @DunnerLaw I bet in the terms and conditions that most of us don't read there is something that allows this. But again this goes to trust. People do not trust Facebook. And thus they are vulnerable to a mass migration should a slicker network pop up. They consistently do things to erode trust. I bet Dick Cheney is now trusted more than Facebook with Dick's trust level staying flat and FB's just nose diving.


@DunnerLaw That's a great legal perspective. Do you think there's the chance someone can take Facebook to court and force them to not allow this? If they did, and the court ruled against Facebook, that could potentially bring the whole company down as it is based on making money off of the information posted on it every day.


@Shonali I will admit that it does bother me that you can't opt out of this. And I do see the (potential) legal ramifications. It does boil down to what is, or isn't, fair game in the public domain and/or arena. I am with you that, for the general public, I don't know if this is good or bad. For marketers and brands, it's obviously a hugely useful opportunity.

Shonali moderator

@MattLaCasse I think most of us who are "in the public eye," as you put it, to some extent, recognize we're volunteering information about ourselves that many others don't feel comfortable with.

With Facebook, the problem is that many people DON'T read through the fine print, adjust their privacy settings, etc. Is this all Facebook's fault? Not completely. It's our responsibility to read through the TOS and so on. However, you can't deny that FB makes so many changes, so quickly, so often, that it's difficult to keep up.

Like I said in my post, I don't know if this is all good or all bad, and it's probably got a bit of each in it. What I am still trying to get my head around is that there is no way for you to opt out of your "likes" - and that too, with your name attached - being used as ads. That is, as @DunnerLaw pointed out, a potential privacy issue - and that was my point when you and I went head to head (in a very nice way, I'm glad to say!) about what is and isn't "public domain."


  1. [...] Burke wrote a fantastic piece – "Like Stuff On Facebook? Say Cheese, You're An Ad! (…) about what FB can do with your "Likes".I don't put much stock into the [...]

  2. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Shaun Dakin, Barbara B. Nixon, Shonali Burke, Shonali Burke, Jen Zingsheim and others. Jen Zingsheim said: RT @shonali: New post: "Like Stuff On Facebook? Say Cheese, U're An Ad!" #pr #socialmedia h/t @bethharte @jenzings [...]