Social Media

Stop Calling Me Fat, Facebook

July 10, 2008

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 restrictive.

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?

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