Health Promotion Agency spends big on Facebook

A small government agency has been spending up big on digital advertisements, apparently at the expense of local media

You’ve probably never heard of the Health Promotion Agency, but Facebook and Google sure have. The agency spent over $1.8 million on advertising with online outlets last year, compared with roughly $3.8 million on traditional media.

While the spend on traditional advertising is still significant, the HPA bought no advertising in papers published by Fairfax (later Stuff), one of the two largest news publishers in New Zealand, which owns the Dominion Post, and The Press.  

The revelation adds to calls the Government should look at its procurement of advertising from Facebook and Google which have suffered major revelations about poor corporate ethics and are seen as cannibalising the incomes of local journalism outlets. 

HPA no bestie

The Health Promotion Agency or HPA is a small department overseen by the Ministry of Health that looks after ad campaigns about healthy living. 

It raised eyebrows last month over an online campaign on the perils of drinking before determining whether one is pregnant, titled pre-testie besties.

The ads did the rounds on Facebook and Google-owned YouTube. It appears the two companies were paid handsomely for the privilege, although it appears many social media users were unimpressed. 

The campaign, which featured the lines like “coz you got that dick now you gotta wait till you piss on the stick”, was widely criticised as cringeworthy and patronising.

Concerns over Facebook and Google spending 

Domestic media is in trouble in New Zealand as print circulations decline and revenue from online advertising fails to pick up the shortfall. 

In 2016, the two largest publishers of print media, NZME and Fairfax (now Stuff) applied to merge, citing a need to extend the “runway” and give the companies time to switch to a more sustainable business model.

The merger was denied earlier this year, leaving both companies in limbo. 

At the same time, Facebook and Google have come under fire for their perceived lack of ethics. The companies have been accused of failing to halt the rise of racist politics, and fermenting social turmoil.

A spokesperson for the HPA said advertising placement decisions were based on research on the best way to reach target audiences.

The spokesperson said HPA had collaborated with New Zealand on Air for its “Where are the Audiences” research, which helped determine where ad money was best spent. Other companies and agencies using this research could follow HPA and divert their spending from traditional media outlets. 

Lean in … to antisemitism? 

While Facebook and Google may be the best place to grab attention, both companies have recently come under fire.

A New York Times investigation found high-profile executive Sheryl Sandberg asked staff to investigate George Soros, who had publicly criticised Facebook. The company later hired a firm with a history of anti-Semitic smears to dig dirt on Soros. 

In New Zealand, concerns have also been growing about the role of Facebook and Google in public life. 

While local media respected the interim name suppression on the man accused of murdering British Backpacker Grace Millane this week, the man’s name was readily available on social media. 

The suppression was so poorly maintained online that the police themselves used social media to urge people to protect it.

Justice Minister Andrew Little also urged caution, saying breaking the suppression could prejudice the trial.

But at the time of writing, the man’s name is still readily accessible on social media, alongside advertisements, some of which are likely to be paid for by government agencies.

Massive disparity in traditional versus digital spend 

The HPA’s $1.8 million spend on digital advertising includes the digital wings of a number of New Zealand outlets, including Stuff, NZME, and the websites of TVNZ and Mediaworks. 

Unfortunately, the advertising spend isn’t broken down to see how much of the spend was divided between domestic and international outlets.

However a similar request for information from NZTA showed that the agency spent very little on domestic websites in the last financial year. Just $65,000 was spent with NZME and Stuff’s websites, compared with $720,000 on Facebook and Google.

While the HPA’s traditional spending was significant, it was split between many large companies, some which do not provide journalism. These companies include AdShel, which produces ads at bus shelters, Phantom, which produces outdoor advertising, and Screen Vistas and Val Morgan, which run ads in cinemas. Bauer, the publisher of Metro, the Listener, and North and South, NZME, as well as Mediaworks, TVNZ, and Māori TV. A host of student radio stations also received a share of the $3.8 million. 

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