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Innovation

Facebook: when targeted ads cause offense

It's easy to brush off an irrelevant or offensive ad if it's the result of a sledge hammer campaign that "has nothing to do with me". But when it gets personal, it's personal.
Written by Steve O'Hear, Contributor on

"You're fat!" screams the ad. But in an online world of supposedly hyper-targeted advertising it's hard not to take offense. And offense The Washington Post's Rachel Beckman takes.

In a rather fun article, Beckman describes her own experience of Facebook's ad platform. The site's 'proverbial brain' knows a little more about us than most web properties, and certainly traditional media such as television and newspapers. In particular, Beckman has declared her age and marital status.

When Beckman told the so-called social utility that she was engaged, she was targeted with weight loss ads, specifically "learn how you can shrink your waist." Another offending ad asked: "Do you want to be a fat bride?"

After changing her status to married, Berkman was then targeted with ads offering advice on how to get pregnant.

Berkman notes that Facebook has since updated its ad policy:

... in part to address the diet ads. Any ads that refer to health or medical conditions can go only to users 18 or older, and they must "present information without portraying any conditions or body types in a negative light."

Berkman's story raises an interesting issue with regards to targeted ads in general. As users become more "ad-literate" and aware of the exchange of personal data in return for better and more relevant ads, in return for "free" services, they'll likely take offense at some of the resulting ads. It's easy to brush off an irrelevant or offensive ad if it's the result of a sledge hammer campaign that "has nothing to do with me". But when it gets personal, it's personal.

But why are Facebook's ads so trashy when the site should be able to target better than most? I can only conclude that the site has a very weak ad inventory, perhaps because of the reportedly low click-through rates. You can have the most sophisticated targeting algorithm on the planet, but if you don't have the ads to match, it's pretty much useless.

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