Ready, aim, fire: targeted advertising, the General Election and what really bugs me

Wednesday 7 June 2017 by Melissa Towriss

As social media plays an increasingly important role in our everyday lives, it’s inevitable that it also contributes to shaping our political opinions. Recently it’s been presented as a valuable weapon in the battle for Number 10. Political parties have once again used targeted social ads to reach voters in specific areas – in the run-up to the 2015 General Election alone a total of £1.3 million was spent on targeted Facebook ads.

Learning from the concerns raised about the influence of “fake news” in the US presidential election last year, Facebook is trying to ensure inaccurate or fabricated stories don't have the same impact in the run-up to this year’s General Election. By deploying artificial intelligence (AI) to identify fake websites and paying for a series of full-page splashes in UK print titles, Facebook is attempting to embed an awareness of bogus stories and the importance of maintaining a healthy scepticism. Steps that, I believe, are long overdue.

Nothing pains me more than scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed and seeing obnoxious ads blaring out at me. Sometimes I even find myself drawn to the clickbait headlines, even though I know that they’re driven by a cash-for-clicks mentality and are often based on pure fiction.

What's scary is that Facebook, and consequently these “fake” links, has become a main source of information for my generation. Millennials tend to gather news from shared Facebook content; mainly because it’s free and typically endorsed by a friend or acquaintance – tacit recommendations. And, although Mark Zuckerberg claims that his business is “not a traditional media company”, it’s clear that we’re living in a society where “I read about that on Facebook” has become an all-too-common phrase.

Despite Facebook’s attempts to tackle fake news, it’s recently emerged that the social network’s paid ad feature is also causing concern. In the run-up to the voter registration deadline this year, targeted posts attacking Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn were paid for by the Conservative Party and distributed by Facebook in the constituency of Delyn in Wales. These aggressive ads drowned out the local Labour party’s banners, which aimed to boost the number of young voters. As organisations typically “bid” for Facebook ad slots, the Conservative Party could drive up the costs of the ad units and therefore drown out efforts from smaller bidders – exposing another darker side to targeted social advertising.

Eyes and ears (and smartphone speakers)

Outside the political playing field, I experience targeted advertising everywhere. It feels like whatever I search for, any sites I visit and anything I buy is tracked and fed back to me as an ad. To fuel its ad business, which is by far the largest contributor to its revenue, Google has harnessed the data from a plethora of its essential apps – YouTube, Gmail, Google Maps and Google Play Store, to name just a few.

Google even uses our credit card transaction records – both in-store and online – to fuel its targeting. Now, something that I spontaneously buy during my seemingly tech-free weekly food shop can be advertised back to me on my smartphone or laptop – something Google optimistically frames as an attempt to “close the loop” between our physical and digital worlds.

It’s not just the things we buy or the places we go that Google tracks. Recently, the internet (and our office) has exploded with anecdotes over concerns that our phones are listening to us and using our conversations as targeting data. Although some may dismiss the stories as coincidence, my fellow Frameworkers and I have noted a number of cases where brands we have discussed are later “advertised” back to us on social media. Coincidence? Who can say. But one thing’s for sure – it would be a huge invasion of privacy.

For all the cash poured into targeted ads, I can’t help chuckling to myself when they miss the mark. The complex algorithms that fuel this activity aren’t always as clever as you might think. I’m a make-up fanatic and I buy a lot of cosmetics – but I won’t touch any brands that I know test on animals. Despite this, I’m still constantly shown products from companies that engage in animal testing. The systems are still not accurate enough. To me, it seems that a lot of money is being pumped into these targeted ads and there is still an opportunity to use consumer data better.

A leopard doesn’t change its spots

Of course, Facebook’s not the only social network harnessing this advertising technique. Alongside specific targeting, brands on Instagram and Pinterest are inserting their ads into their customers’ feeds. By blending in with posts from friends, celebrities and influencers, the ads mix with our regular newsfeeds and it’s only when you idly double-tap an image or pin a post that you realise you’ve fallen victim to the ad trap. The more jaded among us no doubt have concerns that it will soon be hard to distinguish between ads and posts from genuine profiles you’ve opted to follow.

Image depicting Instagram's sponsored ads. Instagram sponsored ads

Image depicting Pinterest's promoted pins. Pinterest promoted pins

As brands become more like our friends, our friends start to become more like brands. With the launch of Instagram’s business profile feature it’s now easier than ever for smaller businesses – and even individuals – to join the world of advertising.

Although it’s great that Instagram is empowering the little guy, giving undiscovered entrepreneurs an engaging and relatively cheap way to advertise, I can’t help thinking that things are at risk of going a little too far. After they have made a business profile, Instagram users are regularly urged to make (and pay for) targeted ads to promote their business on the platform. But, as the noise of targeted advertising is so loud, small and medium businesses are effectively being forced into buying more and more ads just to be heard above the racket. It’s a vicious circle.

Bullseye or bullsh*t?

Targeted ads have certainly changed the advertising landscape. And I’m worried that it’s all becoming too easy for brands to use our online activity to fuel their advertising efforts. If they can reach their audience so accurately and so easily, will they become complacent? Will they stop trying to be savvy or intelligent? Accurate targeting is designed to enhance the user experience by providing relevant ads, but there’s a danger that brands might believe that simply reaching the right audience is enough – and that engaging them with eye-catching imagery and clever copy comes an increasingly distant second.

In the meantime, however, it will be interesting to see who wins this week’s social media battle – and whose ads were most on target.

Remember, a thumbs-up-like isn’t the same as a cross in the box.

Good luck Britain.


  • Advertising