Facebook ads might work, but not how they think

Facebook ads are notoriously and comically off-base. But even when they pique our interest, in today's multi-option environment they are likely to sell something for a competitor.
Written by Denise Howell, Inactive

[Updated 9/22/10 with a clarification from Facebook re ad clicks.]

I've been reading the latest in The Wall Street Journal's excellent What They Know series (further post to come on that front), and pondering online advertising.  Companies are doing their darnedest to figure out who we are and what we want so they can serve us relevant ads that might relate to a real need (or strong wish), and lead to a purchase.  But the system is hopelessly broken, and seems to get more, not less, so as online advertisers learn ever more about us.

Case in point:  this strange photo of a woman applying a camouflage print to her eyelid was to the right of my Facebook profile the other day, along with text having something to do with "free samples."  The weirdness of it made me curious, so the ad had at least caught my interest.  In the world of Facebook and its advertisers, that means I probably clicked the ad to learn more, and maybe bought a product or took part in a promotion they were offering.

In the real world, that's not even close to what happened.  The last thing I want to do is give my information to some promotional outfit in exchange for "free" samples.  So of course I didn't click the ad.  (Does anyone?)  [Update 9/22:  Facebook wrote in to clarify it gives no personally identifiable information to advertisers without a user's knowledge, and that if I had clicked the ad, the advertiser wouldn't have gotten any personal information about me unless I had chosen to enter it on the advertiser's site.  My assumption though was that such information would have to be voluntarily provided by me at some point in order for an ad for "free samples" to have any payoff.] But I did want to know just what that thing was, it had me curious.  (Halloween is on the horizon, after all, and one could build a whole costume around that eye.)  So I Googled "camo eyeshadow."  The fourth result was the company responsible for the product featured in the Facebook ad.  I clicked through the search result, got the company's name, ColorOn, and the name of the product.

Not so bad for Facebook and its advertising clients, so far, even if not precisely how they expect things to work.  While I didn't click the ad next to my profile, seeing the ad still got me to the site where the product was for sale.  But did I buy it there?  Of course not.

As an Amazon Prime member, Amazon is always where I look if I'm in a buying mode.  So off I went to Amazon with the company and product names, and searched there.  The product was there, but as no Prime (free) shipping was available, any notion I might have been entertaining to buy that particular product evaporated.  Instead, I went back to being merely curious about this weird new world of stick-on/peel off eyeshadow, something I'd never seen before and found sort of academically intriguing.  An Amazon search for the manufacturer's name pulled up several related results -- including a similar product from ColorOn's competitor, Avon.  Since those were far cheaper on Amazon (shipping included), and since my curiosity was sufficient to justify the few dollars it would take to satisfy it, I bought the Avon product from Amazon.

Thus did a Facebook ad lead straight to a result no Facebook advertiser wants:  a completed sale for a competitor.  Maybe such an advertiser might take a philosophical "rising tide floats all boats" approach to my anecdote, but I'd be surprised.

Am I that unusual, or a pretty standard modern-day customer?  Do online ads affect your behavior at all, and if so, do you behave in ways the advertisers expect?  If you have anecdotes like mine or even more convoluted ones, I'd love to hear them.

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