Social Media

The J-Files: Jewdar Theories & Facebook’s Mysterious Ad Targeting

July 28, 2009

Would Facebooks ad targeting stump even Mulder and Scully? (image via Flickr)
Would Facebook’s ad targeting stump even Mulder and Scully? (image by dorwath via Flickr)

Everyone seems to have a theory on Jewdar.

Last week, I chronicled a resurgence in the mysterious religious ad targeting on Facebook. Facebook confirmed my suspicion about the limits of ad targeting on the social network. A spokesperson told me, “We don’t extend the capability to target by religion. Therefore, advertisers cannot target users based on their identified religion in their profile.” Still, how was this happening?

A number of readers shared their Jewdar theories on MediaPost’s site, other blogs, or via email, and most have given permission for me to cite them by name. Most give Facebook too much credit, assuming the targeting options are far more sophisticated than what’s really available. Here’s a roundup:

THEORY 1: Facebook is using advanced behavioral targeting.

Uriah Av-Ron: Could the Hebrew ad for Mayor Mike have been prompted by the fact that you have friends on Facebook who do have Hebrew on their pages, or maybe someone once wrote you a message in Hebrew?

THEORY 2: Facebook allows targeting by name.

Roy Moskowitz: They’re definitely targeting based on traditionally Jewish last names.

Mike Myers: Just wondering aloud, could the targeting be based on the new URLs that contain names? Perhaps they have a list of names they consider Jewish and are targeting based on profile names???

Jessica Hasenplaugh: Are you sure the advertisers are that sophisticated? Maybe they’re just targeting anyone with “owitz” or other similarly Jewish-sounding suffixes in their last names. Incidentally, I don’t receive any German-specific targeting, and I don’t think that religion is implied in my last name.

Sergei Kogut: This is probably farfetched, but could it be simply because Facebook, unlike many other places where you’re likely to see targeted ads, knows exactly what your first and last names are? If you filter just about any list of names for those that end in -itz, you’ll get every instance of Leibowitz, Goetz and even Moskowitz. Add to that a similar first name filter, and you’ll end up with a most probably 99% Jewish list. Of course it isn’t an exact science, and no one would be able to anticipate all the name spelling variations, never mind the problem of name changes that happen when people get married or adopted, but overall a fairly large share of last names display a spelling pattern that could reveal the ethnicity of their owners.

THEORY 3: Facebook allows targeting based on users’ social graphs.

Marcy: I don’t actually believe that they have a Jewdar or whatnot-dar. It is possible that they add the network of those who are already in their network (check out common friends). If you have at least one friend in common, you’ll know where they came from or who referred you. It’s more likely for them to search people by city and not by religion or race. Maybe you’re just in a city that’s quite popular, or you probably have a huge network.

THEORY 4: The targeting is broken to begin with.

Cathy Taylor [not the fellow Social Media Insider columnist]: Your experience with targeted ads on Facebook is rather funny. I’m still wondering why FB is serving up single, white males (older males too) to me when I’m a single black female (not that old). I joked the other day that perhaps FB is suggesting that I try “Something New” until a friend who works as an interactive art director reminded me that Caucasian clip art is cheaper.

Edward Barrera: So then where are my taco, plantain and rum ads? I’m getting discriminat[ed against] by Facebook because I’m a Latino. Scandal.

John Jainschigg: Oy is right. (sigh) This automated inference seems amusing until, one day, it’s not. One day, last year, I happened to use the phrase “anarcho-syndicalist” in a blog (I think I was quoting Monty Python), and watched as my Gmail was suddenly overrun with ads for Che Guevara t-shirts and red-diaper-baby memoirs. So we’re already a couple lines deep into the famous poem: “First, they came for the communists … “ Not a pretty picture, if you’re of morbid character.

THEORY 5: A few overzealous advertisers are making the most of what they have to work with.

Me: Here’s a conundrum: you want to target members of a certain ethnic group online. For whatever reason, you think at least some of your target is on Facebook, and perhaps you like the self-service approach with low minimum bids. So you cobble together what you can. You make generalizations. You want Hispanics so you target people interested in Telemundo (16,000+ in the U.S.). You want African American college graduates so you target people who went to schools like Morehouse (5,700 for that college alone). Then, as you want to expand the campaign’s reach, you target broader and broader until it gets less obvious.

When you do that, though, some people who notice the ad are going to wonder why it’s so on-target, or why it’s off-base. Someone might even compile theories about it. And some of those theories may reveal some people’s concerns around online advertising. Then again, that’s just another theory.

This article was originally published in MediaPost’s Social Media Insider.