Point for Discussion:
Facebook is again in the news. This time, HUD is claiming that advertisers on Facebook are discriminating against groups of people by advertising homes to specified zip codes and men vs. women. Is this discrimination, or is this just marketing to people who may be more likely to purchase the homes?
Our Points of View:
As a marketer, over my career, it has been my responsibility to identify the most promising consumer segments for a product (whether it be flowers, burgers, coffee, staffing services, financial services, and more), understand their needs, tailor a message that is relevant and motivating to them, and target them as cost-effectively as possible.
Investing in advertising on TV networks, radio, magazines and newspaper or direct mail (remember those?) has shifted a portion to social media as a new frontier – not because it’s cheaper, but it’s a way to reach a broader base of potential customers – where they are. Targeting women vs. men, older vs. younger, parents vs. non-parents, specific zip codes or market areas (who is going to drive 30 miles?), and even by ethnicity, has been going on for decades. So why all the focus on social media, and why is the focus on Facebook? Is it just because they are so big?
That said, it is important for social media companies, especially the big ones such as Facebook, to base their targeting on data that was captured in an appropriate way. If users of Facebook, or social media users of other platforms, opt in and agree to provide their high-level profile (age, gender, zip code, ethnicity, etc.), then this is a legitimate capture of data. If not, then that is a different issue.
Let’s assume, for purposes of discussion, that the general, high-level, demographic data was provided in an appropriate way (e.g., an introductory profile of the user):
Taking different products as examples, let’s consider:
- A company would like to market baby food. It is likely that marketers are going to advertise to women who are moms or moms-to-be. This would not likely be perceived as gender discrimination because we know that women are the primary grocery shoppers, and they are more likely to buy food for their babies.
- A manufacturer of pet food is introducing a new cat food. It is likely that marketers are going to advertise to pet owners, ideally cat owners. This would not be perceived as discriminating against dog owners or non-pet parents because they are less likely to purchase cat food to begin with.
- A builder would like to market a new retirement community. It is likely that marketers are going to advertise to older consumers who are more likely to purchase homes in a 55+ community. This would not likely be perceived as discriminating against younger consumers or parents because they couldn’t bring their kids to live there (and may not want to live there anyway).
To me, this is Marketing 101 – it costs a lot to advertise, so it makes sense to target those with greater propensity to purchase your product. Companies spend millions of dollars to understand who potential customers are through segmentation studies and market analysis. This is just smart business. The days of mass marketing are gone where a product is “all things to all people,” especially when it can be very costly for every online click or ad impression, or having to rely on millions of people watching a particular show on TV to see a single ad…
…Which brings us back to the current concerns by HUD officials that Facebook is supporting discrimination by allowing marketers to advertise homes to specific zip codes. If the marketer believes that certain areas are more likely to lead to sales, then they should be able to advertise to those selected areas. Social media makes this possible. I do, however, believe that Facebook captures too much personal information that could be used for targeting (beyond basic demographics), and that they should prove that they are only using information that users have agreed to and allowed them to use. This is the underlying worrisome issue to me.
Facebook is also in the news as Mark Zuckerberg is looking to the government to regulate the internet. Maybe this isn’t such a far-fetched idea in that most other media are regulated, and I don’t think people are trusting of companies regulating themselves!
I am a firm believer that all people should be treated with respect 100% of the time regardless of who they are, where they live, whether or not they are wealthy, etc. The thought that anyone is better than anyone else is just ridiculous. So when I hear things like this, I am offended. Targeting advertising to specific groups based on a perception of their wants and needs is discriminatory at its base, if that’s as far as you look. Who is responsible for this blatant bias? That’s a more difficult question to answer.
On the other side of this is the fact that much of the information they use to sell advertising is provided by Facebook’s users themselves. Users provide far too much information making themselves targets for this advertising bias. Let’s be clear. Facebook users generally post only the good in their lives and very little, if any, of the negative. Advertisers are, therefore, targeting everyone’s good without targeting what they may actually need at the moment. That makes the users partially responsible for the targeted advertising as well.
Which brings us back to the purpose of advertising. As much as advertising supported Laurie’s lifestyle for years (and I respect this, really I do), I personally would be pleased to never see another advertisement. I hate being bombarded with ads wherever I go.
So how much negative impact is this targeted advertising really having on the general population of Facebook users? If these folks are using Facebook, they are likely very familiar with the internet and do their own research if there is something they need or want. If they’re paying attention, they will notice that once they conduct an internet search for something that they wanted or needed, advertising related to that item will appear on every page they visit for an extended period of time.
If Facebook is allowing its marketing partners to target advertising based on data provided by users, it could be construed as discriminatory but since it’s based on data provided by users, then the users are defining the audience. Facebook shouldn’t be held accountable for that. They are merely providing a forum for the exchange of information and ideas. As long as that forum is not used illegally or for nefarious purposes, then Facebook’s mission is supported by its user community.
As a nation, we need to stop creating issues and offenses where they don’t necessarily exist. As a population, we need to recognize that we are all individuals who look at every situation from our own unique perspective. We will feel supported and/or offended many times in our lives. But if we all treat each other with respect and compassion, the world will be a better place. Let’s focus on that for a while. ☮️
Our Question for you:
Are you offended by targeted advertising? Do you think Facebook users have contributed to the perception of bias in the advertising platform?