The Prop 37 Phenomenon on Facebook

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Editor’s note: Ali Partovi is an Internet entrepreneur (LinkExchange, iLike) and investor (Dropbox, OPower, Zappos). In recent years he has turned his attention to opportunities in food and agriculture.

Over the past two weeks, I’ve been involved in a Facebook ad campaign whose results are astonishing.  It’s a political campaign supporting California’s Proposition 37 (Label Genetically Engineered Foods).

Our Facebook sales rep was ecstatic when she first saw the numbers. She’d never seen anything like it in her career. But before I share the details, let me explain why I’m passionate about this.

Level Playing Field

Since 1995, the web has been heralded as the great leveler. When I was 23, I joined the founding team of LinkExchange, a startup trying to level the playing field for websites that wanted traffic. (LinkExchange, the web’s first ad network, coined the acronym “CTR” for Click-Through Ratio – more on that in a bit). Some years after LinkExchange was acquired, I ran GarageBand.com, a startup trying to level the playing field for indie bands.

Throughout my career, I’ve been drawn by the web’s potential to help the little guy and democratize industries. Today AirBnB is disrupting hospitality; 99Designs the design business; Uber the taxi and limousine business; the list goes on.

The Internet is also democratizing democracy.

Fifteen years ago, political fundraisers were lavish events for the wealthy.  Then we saw the rise of $25 donations via the web. Now, as social media replace traditional media, the influence of ordinary people may replace the influence of money. Facebook, including a new feature introduced last week, may change the fate of the Prop 37 vote on Nov 6, and with it herald a new face of politics in America.

Transparency In The Food System

Prop 37 is a proposed California law that would mandate the labeling of foods with genetically engineered ingredients, and bar marketing them as “natural.” Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are experimental life forms invented by splicing DNA from different species: for example, salmon spliced with eel. These invented beings are patented on the basis that they’re unlike anything ever seen in nature; yet they’re labeled “natural” and they’ve quietly invaded America’s food system over the past two decades.

Are GMO foods safe?  We don’t know, but that’s not the question: the law is not for a “warning” label. Do GMOs improve crop yields? Not yet, but that’s not the question either. Will GMOs help “feed the world”? U.N. scientists say no, but nobody’s asking California voters to decide how the world is fed. In America, we believe free markets should make decisions like that. Free markets are based on transparency and information, not government intervention.

In some other country, say China, one might imagine a government secretly introducing experimental life forms into the food system in the name of increasing output. But in fact, China, along with Russia, India, Brazil, all of Europe – 62 countries in total – require labeling GMO foods. It’s in America that they’ve been covertly introduced.

The issue is not whether GMO foods are safe or productive. It’s that they’re new and different; yet they look deceptively natural, and they’re deceptively labeled “all natural.”  In America, we trust the labels. We don’t expect our government to sneak new inventions into our food without telling us, no matter how wonderful they might be.

Deception like this distorts prices, which particularly harms the poor.  Low-income people care what they feed their kids too.  When I was a teenager, my parents worked multiple jobs to pay for my education and put food on the table: healthy, natural food. Today, anybody buying “all natural” food is likely overpaying, unaware that it may contain genetically engineered ingredients.

Most Americans react with alarm when they learn about GMOs, and the advocates of Prop 37 may come across as alarmist.  (One renegade went so far as to make a homemade video featuring a mutant monkey and dead rats!)

However, that’s better than lying, which is what GMO companies are doing to confuse voters. $35 million from the likes of Monsanto has flooded California with misleading messages. Their ads feature a “Stanford professor” who is actually not a professor and not from Stanford; a fabricated FDA quote, forged seal and all; and so on. They decry Prop 37 as created by a trial lawyer, when it was actually started by a California farmer and mom (although she did get a lawyer to help with the, uh, law part).

The Best Advertising

One might think Californians would succumb to this drumbeat of deceptive corporate commercials. But here’s where Facebook enters the picture. On Facebook, the voices of ordinary people speak louder than big corporations.  On Facebook, the conversation may be messy and unpredictable, but the truth rises above the noise.

As every businessman knows, the best advertising is word of mouth. You can’t buy that; but on Facebook, you can amplify it. That’s why, when I decided to help Prop 37, I focused on Facebook.

The Prop 37 team had already cultivated a vibrant fan community on Facebook, which made all the difference. I helped start a promotion encouraging these fans to speak out for GMO labeling in their own words, and asking them to use the new “Promoted Posts” feature, where anybody can pay $7 to increase the visibility of what they say. Although some businesses on Facebook are complaining about paying to reach their own fans (here and here), we embraced this feature as a way of leveling the playing field for the little guy, and our fans have responded positively.

I also began spending my own money and soliciting donations on Indiegogo to fund ads on Facebook.  Ten days later, the results have been stunning.  Is it the best ad campaign of all time? Possibly. Some of the ads have a CTR as high as 10%; on the whole they are 20 times better than average.  They have a cost-per-click of $0.18, about five times better than average.  With only $33,000, they’ve reached 3.3 million Californians of voting age. The reach is more than doubled because people are clicking “Like” and forwarding the message along.

Fueled by popular support, every dollar this campaign spends on Facebook has as much impact as ten dollars spent on TV ads. What’s more, the ads are literally the voices of ordinary people.  Our most effective ad units are not clever slogans or graphics, but fan comments.  The message is replete with typos and errors, but it has one thing the opposition lacks: authenticity.

What happens in California doesn’t stay in California.

I’m passionate about Prop 37 because its impact goes beyond California, and beyond GMOs. The Prop 37 vote is a referendum on all food reform, from corn subsidies to antibiotics in meat.  If it passes, it signals to Congress and the White House that food issues sway votes.  If it fails, it signals business as usual: that the influence of agribusiness corporations is still greater than the voice of ordinary people.

Prop 37 FTW!