Here’s today’s MediaPost column. Thanks to everyone on Twitter who helped me out with this one.
Have you ever felt insulted by overzealous ad targeting?
I’ve been hearing this come up more in conversation lately, often
with people who aren’t in the advertising or technology industries. One
example was first mentioned to me by a female friend who saw an ad on
the left side of Facebook that mentioned her age and suggested she was
overweight (for the record: she’s not). She was insulted enough that
she actually had to close out of Facebook to escape the ad for a bit.
You can see an example of the ad, courtesy of Jennifer Marshall. There’s also a male version on my Flickr page, with the ad’s photo only slightly less scary than Lou Ferrigno shirtless in the "Hulk" TV series.
I’m seeing mentions of ad insults on Twitter too. MediaPost’s Just an Online Minute writer Kelly Samardak recently tweeted, "Must find new social network that won’t tell me I’m old and fat…" Several others responded to my Twitter post where I sought their feedback. Alan Wolk chimed in, "Well [Facebook’s] always asking me if I’m fat or bald." Jeff Larche
must have gotten the Ferrigno ad or something like it, as he noted,
"There’s my experience — a Facebook ad showing a washboard male stomach
and chest. Headline: ‘Male, 49, out of shape’ Yow!" John Morton tweeted, "I’ve been seeing ads that use my age data in them recently," and shared a link to a screenshot of an ad soliciting survey respondents.
All of this may simply indicate that these ads are working. At the
very least, these ads are getting noticed. That should help Facebook
with its monetization issues, right?
Yet for the average consumer, this becomes a turnoff. When ads start
calling out to people, especially women, "You’re 30 and overweight,"
it’s hard not to take it personally. Meanwhile, the advertisers who are
currently getting noticed for these ads aren’t big brands or the kinds
of marketers consumers sometimes wouldn’t mind hearing from. The weight
loss ad targeting me not only told me "Ab exercises won’t get you a cut
body" so that I should actually exercise less (which is almost
impossible for me to do), but it promises, "Burn fat and increase
energy with ultra green tea." I’m definitely drinking the wrong brand.
My friend who inspired this column said Facebook isn’t the only site
giving her the willies. She noted reading a certain blog where the ads
called out to her by name, something which advertisers have been able
to do for years but haven’t used much. In a sense, consumers don’t
realize how fortunate they are that most advertisers are more
conservative than they can be online.
The problem on Facebook is that the rules with its Social Ads allow
some advertisers to extend into that "creepy" territory all too easily,
bringing negative attention to its whole platform and ruining the party
for everyone else who tries to just run a solid campaign.
One of the strange lines that’s blurring is that it’s getting harder
to tell what content’s from an advertiser and what’s from a friend. Ads
and people are merging. It’s not a new concept; when you see someone
wearing a Nike T-shirt, are they using Nike, or is Nike using them?
(Yes, both are generally true.) Yet when the ads act like people, such
as by including recommendations from friends or becoming so personal
that they make it sound like they really know you, the ads should be
treated like people.
On Facebook, people can be blocked, befriended, or removed as
friends. I’ve counted over 40 privacy controls on Facebook’s dashboard,
which is one of the most granular I’ve seen anywhere. With the ads
growing more personal, even more controls are needed. A simple "block
this ad" link or icon will help give users more power over their
environment — and with Facebook serving as a social dashboard for
people to manage their connections, communications, events, photos, and
other parts of their lives, those controls are essential.
What if this got out of hand and millions of Facebook users blocked
every ad they saw? First of all, that should tell Facebook its ads
aren’t resonating. Meanwhile, Facebook already has a mechanism that can
serve as a compromise. At the bottom of the News Feed, which serves as
a registered user’s homepage on Facebook, there’s a link to
"preferences" where you can choose to receive more or less information
about select friends. I chose to get more information about my wife,
and less about some people who are friends of sorts but with whom I
share few common interests. You can only select 40 friends in each
category. I don’t know why that is; the limit hasn’t changed since I
first saw the feature some time ago, and yet active users like me keep
increasing their friend totals, so the limit becomes continually more
While I wish the feature would loosen up for controls for friends,
the restriction could be perfect for advertisers: users would have a
cap on how many advertisers they block. If too many users reached the
limit, Facebook could then reevaluate its policies. Users would still
complain, because people always complain even when they’re generally
happy; as Hobbes the tiger notes in the classic comic strip,
"We’re kind of stupid that way." Yet overall, for users who don’t like
what they see when they notice the ads, it will improve their
experience, and it will help signal to advertisers when they’re
crossing the line. Then again, it could kindle a new debate: is it
better to be blocked or ignored?