When Targeted Ads Attack: Engagement Rings, Teen Pregnancy and 55 Gallons of Lube

  • Share
  • Read Later
Adrian Samson / Getty Images

The Atlantic writer Sara Marie Watson was recently surprised by a wedding ring. No, her fiancé didn’t get on one knee; it popped up on a Facebook ad over the question “How well do you know Nick Smith?”

The answer was that she knew him well. In fact, they were engaged to be married. The problem was that she hadn’t made the engagement public, which kind of freaked her out. When she contacted Facebook, she got this response:

First, the placement of the ad and the question was an accident. That is to say, Facebook wanted to show me the ad and it wanted to ask me the question, but the fact that they showed up at the same time was coincidental. Second, I was probably targeted for an engagement ring ad because of some things I posted about our wedding or on the basis that I’m a woman of marrying age. Third, Facebook’s spokesman said that my answer to the question about Nick was just for Facebook’s social graph, not for advertisers.

Yes, that particular pairing — the ad for the engagement ring and the question about her fiancé — might have been coincidental, but both were the result of rigorous data collection. The ring showed up because she was “a woman of marrying age” and, most likely, because the words “engagement” and “wedding” were occasionally in her and her friends’ comments. Facebook probably ascertained that she and Nick Smith were connected thanks to the fact that they were tagged in a lot of photos together.

(MORE: Why Google and Others Are On Board with Obama’s Privacy Bill of Rights)

So, yes, coincidental, but not exactly unexpected. Even if Facebook’s ad team and internal stats team are separate, if they are both working from similarly massive data sets then messages from the two are inevitably going to come to similar conclusions.

It could have been worse. She could have ended up like Nick Bergus, the unintentional lube salesman. Bergus spotted a hilarious deal on his Stellar feed: a 55-gallon drum of water-based lubricant for $1,495.

The idea that someone would peruse Amazon and then decide they needed 55 gallons of lube is inherently funny, so Bergus did what any good citizen of the Internet would — posted about it on Facebook:

A 55-gallon drum of lube on Amazon. For Valentine’s Day. And every day. For the rest of your life.

Funny! Also, obviously ironic to everyone reading it — except for Facebook’s famous Sponsored Stories ad program, which took the post to be a full endorsement of Passion Natural’s water-based lubricants. Soon old co-workers, friends and friends of friends of his were seeing sponsored ads featuring Bergus’ jokey endorsement on their Facebook feeds.

Then, of course, there’s the case of the father who didn’t know his daughter was pregnant. In Minneapolis, a man stormed into a Target and yelled at an employee because his daughter kept getting coupons for items like cribs and baby clothes in the mail. Later he apologized when he found out that his daughter was indeed pregnant. Target knew that because it monitors in-store purchases, online activity, surveys and more to create incredibly accurate profiles of its customers.

So what are we to make of these stories, all of which have popped up during the last two months? That targeted advertising isn’t something to casually dismiss. Not that it’s completely evil; many people, myself included, find targeted ads more helpful and less annoying than randomly placed ads.

But the fact remains that giant corporations are pouring millions of dollars into creating detailed digital profiles of you. This technology is only getting more advanced. People now spend more time using mobile apps than browsing the web at home, and they still spend a lot of time browsing the web at home.

The point is, we are constantly online nowadays, often on services like Facebook that are constantly collecting information about us. Facebook is going public, meaning there is going to be a lot more pressure on it to make money. It’s a potentially hazardous combination. I’m not sure what the answer is. Perhaps rewarding people for voluntarily giving information about themselves instead of covertly collecting it in the background? One thing’s for sure — if you see something hilariously naughty on Amazon, keep it yourself.

MORE: Can a New Breed of Geolocation Apps Beat Privacy Fears to Make It Big?