I know it’s controversial, but I’m actually a fan of targeted advertising. I had an experience last year when I was shopping for a jacket. I had the one I wanted all picked out, but it was $200 in the stores, so I started googling in search of a discount website. I found it for $150, and decided to wait just a few weeks to be sure I didn’t find anything better. Only days later an ad on my Facebook page caught my eye with a picture of the exact jacket on sale for $99! Thank you Facebook ads for saving me some significant cash!
I’m not an expert, but the metrics seems pretty simple to me. They take your browsing and search history and tailor ads to your interests. Great, then I get to see ads relevant to me, I’m fine with that. Sometimes the metrics are a bit comical, like when my husband changed his Facebook status to “engaged” and suddenly started seeing ads for prenup attorneys. We had a good laugh. But sometimes the metric doesn’t truly understand the station. And sometimes the mistakes are not funny, they’re hurtful.
My search history tells a very true story of my thoughts over the last few years. From searching “infertility drugs” and “IVF”, “how to know you’re pregnant” and “how to know if it’s twins.” “How early did you start to show” turned into “what to do after a bad ultrasound” and then became “what will happen when I miscarry.” Finally it turned into “how to adopt a baby” and “what to expect during your home study”. The bottom line is that anyone with half a brain could look at my data at any point in time and instantly know what ads to show me, and more importantly what ads not to show me. Only it’s not a person looking at my data, it’s a computer. And that computer doesn’t realize that the maternity clothing you’re showing me because I searched “pregnant with twins” is going to make me want to punch you once I’ve googled “how to handle a miscarriage”.
The ad targeting computers are even more confused by my current searches. “What’s the best car seat for small cars” is mixed with “where to advertise my adoption search”, and there isn’t a single search for maternity symptoms. And for the most part all the ads I’m seeing are for cribs and daycare. But Facebook can’t quite figure out which targeted articles to put into my newsfeed, and I keep getting NPR stories about nutrition studies during pregnancy popping up. I often scroll past the pictures of smiling women rubbing their baby bumps as fast as possible to avoid tears.
I get it that a computer can only be so smart, and the algorithm is only programmed to identify the most mainstream of situations. Hurtful and upsetting as the ads can sometimes be, I can’t really be mad at anyone for them. What I can’t handle is when the more specific situations are overlooked by websites that should know better. A friend told me recently that she sought comfort on a message board of a popular pregnancy website after a recent miscarriage. As she was reading posts about pregnancy loss an ad popped up with a 5 month ultrasound picture prominently displayed! This definitely was not the comfort she was looking for.
Maybe it’s time to upgrade the algorithms. Life is more complicated the we’ve programmed computers to understand. I know there are so many specific situations, and it takes time to teach a machine each and every one. But maybe that’s time worth taking if the advertising community doesn’t want to continue to offend its audience during fragile times. I know I for one would appreciate it.