As news organizations and the Trump administration battle over "fake news," some auto-makers face a new challenge on social media: "fake ads."
Sponsored posts and ads on Facebook have surfaced touting "new" vehicles such as the Dodge Charger and Cadillac Escalade with altered or misleading images. Some posts feature a concept vehicle or more futuristic design of a current model, while others show fake vehicles.
Social media users share, comment on and "like" the posts based on the fictitious cars and trucks -- potentially giving consumers unrealistic expectations when buying a new vehicle.
It's a thorny issue for auto brands that like the exposure and targeting capabilities of social media but zealously control how their brands and vehicles are portrayed.
A post from a group called Auto Elite featured an image of what appears to be an Escalade morphed into a large wagon and the headline "Cadillac Escalade Features."
Following inquiries by Automotive News, Cadillac spokesman Andrew Lipman said the brand is "working with Facebook to identify these fake ads and have them removed."
The post appeared to have been removed as of last week, and the group has changed its name to Auto Review Hub.
Automakers can file a complaint with Facebook to investigate the ads or posts if they believe they infringe intellectual property or other rights. But using misleading or manipulated images doesn't violate Facebook's policies, as long as they link to information about the real vehicles or related websites, including dealership websites.
"I would like to see a stop to them," said Matt Wertz, a retired General Motors assembly worker of 30 years who has criticized the ads and posts. "I follow reputable sources, and when I see those posts on Facebook, and I see the comments of how many people are discussing it, it's frustrating."
Facebook, which has launched efforts to remove fake news from the social media platform, declined to comment on whether it plans to change its advertising policies to ban the use of altered images.
Using a misleading or provocative image or headline to lure online users is commonplace for websites and companies that get paid by advertisers by the number of clicks, or views, their websites and affiliates attract. It's called click-bait.
"We've got fake news, fake products and now fake ads that are really misleading," said Hairong Li, an advertising professor at Michigan State University who is part of a team researching the effects of fake news and products on consumers. "There is a call in the industry to try and eliminate such fake sites."
Dealers and even news organizations partner with or enlist companies such as Media.net or Taboola, an industry leader for "sponsored links" or "content discovery," as a way to advertise or increase digital metrics.
Ads on sites operated by or affiliated with such companies can differ every time someone goes to them, as many are tailored to individual users based on their search history, location or Internet cookies.
Li argues that the clicks generated by such sites provide little long-term benefit -- particularly if a customer goes to a dealership seeking a vehicle that doesn't exist.
"On the dealer side, it's a total loss," he said. "It's fake traffic. I don't think they really benefit."