Invasive or Innovative ? : Targeted Ads on Facebook

By: Louise Kronenberger – Blog Writer

Since the beginning of the 2010’s, Facebook has put in place a series of new options for advertisers, allowing them to more precisely target the audience of their ads on the social network. Today, the site,with approximately 1.7 billion active users on the social network, is a real nest of opportunity for businesses to try to sell their products. Beforehand, advertisers had never considered Facebook as a network with any real potential for selling.

In 2013, Facebook started partnerships with data brokers, companies such as Epsilon, Acxiom, and Datalogix, and deeply transformed the way this platform could be used by businesses. These brokers are storing massive amounts of data, from address records or license plates to consuming habits or money transactions. Facebook has access to an increasing amount of information about its users. This allows for the emergence of targeted ads on the social network, and the opportunity for advertisers to use the platform for a more efficient and targeted advertising. Today, Facebook represents approximately 25% of the advertising market online in the US.

What are targeted ads ?

Let’s say that a few days ago, you wanted to book a trip for you and your significant other in New York. You might have searched and typed on Google, or any other browser: « romantic hotel New York ». Many results showed up, and you clicked on several websites concerning this topic. A few days later, you went back to your browser and did another completely different search, but somewhere on the screen, you see a little pop up showing discounts for an organized trip to New York. What a coincidence. Well, this is essentially targeted advertising.


Source: AppSamurai

Targeted ads are ads on the web, or elsewhere like in the mail for instance, that are specifically addressed to you or persons with the same profile. It’s advantageous for advertisers and for companies trying to sell a particular product because it is more cost-efficient to target one person or a group of people than to advertise to the general population. In a certain way, one could say that this practice is also in the consumer’s advantage because he will not be bothered by ads that would not interest him at all, and therefore will spare him useless advertisements. Targeted advertisements have been part of the internet since the 1990’s, but it is only since the 2000’s that companies really started to use browsers’ data and the browsing habits of the consumer to implement their advertisements.

How it works

The Facebook website indicates clearly how firms can proceed in order to put in place these targeted ads. The platform offers special contracts helping businesses to target more efficiently their potential clients. Custom Audiences, is one of them. It is tool that was rendered accessible to every advertisement agency in 2014, which allows even smaller companies to use the system of ad targeting. As the website says: « Now it’s not only easier for businesses of every size to buy ads on Facebook, but it’s also easier to find and reach customers and prospects. ». Indeed, they just need to upload a contact or mailing list into the system, and then it will automatically match the specific audience or person with the advertisement of the company. Marketers can now use it on any Facebook ad interface, which means that it can be seen on Google or other platforms as well.

screen-shot-2017-02-04-at-2-13-27-pmSource: Targeted Ad from Facebook

Moreover, as part of these general updates in 2014, Facebook also released another service that allows businesses to track users that came to their websites thanks to a Facebook ad. Companies can now have access to these statistics, and adapt the way their ad is arranged and positioned on the platform in order to be most efficient. When they subscribe to this contract, Facebook ask them for a specific objective and they try to reach it by targeting the perfect buyers as precisely as possible.

More generally, companies can choose their targets based on various types of data that they decide to use to reach to goal. For instance, while configuring their ad, they can pick which specific audience they want to target by using the Facebook data base and settling the standard that they want, with different criteria such as location, demographic statistics, area of interest, behaviour, and so on.

What about our privacy ?

With all that, one question remains: how will this affect our privacy and our right to keep private information secret?

The disclosure of our private information to companies has consequences. We become the target of businesses, and we are put under pressure, in the most personal way, to consume. Facebook is used by millions every day, which makes it powerful and grants it a certain type of control over our life. You don’t have a choice anymore on the Internet. You are confronted by every means and at every moment, to all types of advertising. What is scary is that these ads are specifically addressed to YOU, based on all your most deepest personal information. Facebook also uses your browsing history, combined with the information gathered by the data brokers, which means that you have almost no secrets left for yourself.

Source: Targeted Ad from Facebook

This undermines privacy because your information about anything from your movements and love life to your bank account, can be sold like simple basic goods from one company to another. Edward Snowden, a famous whistleblower, argued in a talk at McGill University last November that: « Privacy is the right to be you ». If your information is revealed and exchanged, this means that you cannot keep anything for yourself, and therefore you can be manipulated everyday, in various ways. Targeted ads can be seen as a form of control over the consumers. Every ad is directed toward a specific audience, leaving them powerless to decide for themselves what they like or want to buy. Users are put into categories in which they will probably remain. It is as if we were watched by a pseudo-Big Brother, and every change of behaviour can be written down, exchanged, and will result in a new type of category in which we can and will be placed.

What about democracy ?

Moreover, basic democratic principles are undermined by this system. Only political parties with the most money, often working as companies, can afford to target certain parts of the population on Facebook, and this can play a major role in the outcome of politics. This occurs because of a violation of privacy. Democracy requires equality of voices, and transparency. Targeted ads are only possible if a company has the money to pay for them, and are no longer solely impactful based on the relevance of the argument. Moreover, because of their algorithms, Facebook has a great power of disinformation, making the population less informed or even simply misinformed. First of all, it is a platform that became a means of ubiquitous surveillance, where data is exchanged and used to target you based on your preferences or profile, sometimes confirming opinions you already have by advertising articles with opinions that you share, and even the existing prejudices. Therefore, targeted ads or even simply targeted content prevents you from being well informed as a person and a citizen because it keeps a variety and range of information from accessing you.

Targeted ads on social media are part of a mechanism that is not always easy to grasp. It is part of a larger network of companies, exchanging information in order to better control our urge to consume. This can deeply undermine privacy and our right to choose freely without any constraints. On top of that, democracy is also weakened by this practice. Mark Zuckerberg argues that users can opt out of this sort of tracking, when he released a guide in 2014, in which he explains how to reconfigure your settings to avoid targeted advertising. Nonetheless, this remains unclear to the general population, and an extra inconvenience required to simply maintain your human right to privacy.

Louise Kronenberger is a U2 student at McGill, majoring in Political Science, Art History, and minoring Communication Studies. 

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of OpenMedia McGill.



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