Facebook’s Ad System Went Nuts and Charged Customers for Ads No One Saw

Facebook’s Ad System Went Nuts and Charged Customers for Ads No One Saw

Facebook’s advertising system went haywire starting around 2 am on Sunday morning, charging marketers extra money for ads that no one saw. Reports suggest Meta, the social network’s parent company, charged some advertisers more than double what they agreed to pay, ranging from hundreds to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Meta briefly took part of its ad system offline with practically zero communication to its millions of customers.

The company confirmed the bug happened and promised to follow its “normal refund process,” but shared very little about what went wrong. The problem comes just days after the Meta began its third round of layoffs in six months.

“A technical issue that has now been resolved caused ad delivery issues for some advertisers,” a Meta spokesperson said. The glitch affected ad delivery on Facebook, not Instagram or Meta’s other properties, the spokesperson said. Advertisers affected by the glitch tweeted they didn’t receive a notification about it.

On Sunday, an untold number of advertisers noticed a dramatic spike in the amount Meta was charging them, going beyond the limits they had set for certain campaigns. In some cases, the system ate up entire advertising budgets in a matter of hours. Worse, the ad campaigns weren’t performing better — that is, the ads weren’t being shown to more people or driving more clicks — even though Meta was pulling more money from people’s accounts.

The Meta ad network is opaque even to people who work in the ad tech business. In general, the way it works is that advertisers tell Meta their goals, set a budget, and wait as the company’s algorithm runs campaigns on their behalf. For example, a toy company might say it wants to spend $US5,000 ($6,941) over two weeks to try and get parents to visit its website. Meta controls exactly how much money is spent and when. Advertisers can check Meta’s system for a report on how well the ad campaign is performing, but advertisers don’t know exactly what’s happening on the other side.

With no word from the company, marketers were left with a difficult decision: pause their ad campaigns, or stay the course and trust that Meta would make things right. For large companies, taking that kind of gamble on a single day’s worth of ads might be no big deal. But millions of small businesses depend on Meta’s ad network, and many operate on razor thin margins. For them, the consequences can be severe.

“We shouldn’t have to take action when Facebook has a bug. But for the small business who don’t have an ear at Facebook, there aren’t a lot of options,” said Barry Holt, a long-time advertising consultant who’s managed Facebook ad campaigns for well over a decade. “Meta is just counting on advertisers to bend over and take it.”

Even compared to other tech companies, Meta has problems with transparency. Often, the only indication advertisers have that Meta knows something is wrong is a status page that notifies advertisers whether the system is running or not.

Meta can get away with this kind of issue because there isn’t a ton of competition. Meta and Google control almost 50% of the digital advertising market. Companies like Amazon, TikTok, and Apple are growing their advertising businesses. But for certain kinds of ads, Meta is essentially the only game in town.

“Meta is extremely opaque, and it always has been,” Holt said. “All we get is a generic explanation that ‘we are aware of an issue.’ That’s better than nothing, but it’s not enough.”

The company’s refund offer is good news for the hordes of frustrated advertisers, but Holt said it’s a slow, complicated process. “You can burn hours and resources complaining and begging them for refunds and credits. Sometimes it works, but it may not be worth the investment,” Holt said. “And when the restitution comes, it can be months later.”

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