Spies Like Us

28 06 2010

In recent months I have noticed an interesting array of ads down the right column of my Facebook page. Amazingly, nearly every one of those ads somehow match words and subjects I have used in my posts and even private FB messages during that time. For example, yesterday I had an ad for something in Boston. Only a couple of days prior I had mentioned in a personal message my desire to return to Boston one day.

Other direct hits include ads for bikes, Sudoku puzzles, music by Joe Bonomassa, Marketing degrees, and online education. It’s almost as if Facebook is telling its advertisers, “Hey…over here! This guy just mentioned your key word in a post!”

Some social critics might call that spying. As a Marketer and advocate of online advertising, I just call it being clever. Still, many folks find this kind of advertising intrusive. Never mind that FB, Twitter, et al, are free, and we have agreed to a very lengthy Terms of Service Agreement (which we all read from start to finish, right?).

But apparently the FTC is starting to sense the frustrations citizens have with online advertising. Twitter just settled with the FTC over a privacy matter dating to 2009 in which user privacy was compromised. And now a large coalition of online advertisers have chosen to be more transparent in how they selected you to receive their ads. In an effort to self-regulate, these advertisers are allowing consumers to actually spy on them. And if you don’t like what you see, the you can opt to not be exposed to their ads.

How’s that again?

Now I know there are those who will argue that self-regulation is a joke. Just look at the banking industry. Airlines. Telecommunications. But it really can work. The alternative is to invite the hand of Big Brother into your board room. Apparently these advertisers understand the importance of getting their act together before someone tries to do it for them.

I for one would love to see the algorithm used by Facebook, Google, and others to determine how to place ads in my way. Surely they have missed some golden opportunities (are they not watching all of the Gowalla check-ins I do from restaurants? Sheesh.). Yet the mere mention of “Boston” sends them into an ad-placing euphoria. Maybe Facebook sensed some italics in that private message, a real yearning to return to the place I visited last summer. Like perhaps because there was unfinished business (of which I am not even aware)? Or was it because some outfit purchased that key word and wants to shove it down every Boston-loving person’s throat?

Maybe there really is justice in this world. Even though we have all chosen to be residents of Facebooklandia, all of those ads can become bothersome. The next thing you know, some enterprising advertiser will figure out how to capture my thoughts and sending matching vendors to my smartphone. By reading between the lines, though, these advertisers today are realizing that the FTC may truly be working in our self-interest. Maybe we really do not want to see the latest deals in Boston, be enticed by Sudoku puzzles, or know when and where to purchase Joe Bonomassa tickets.

You know, just for fun it might be entertaining to drop a few bogus key words into my posts and messages. Just to see if anyone is paying attention. Like North Dakota. Sushi. Beyonce. And other things I don’t like.

Because I can have a mean streak running through me at times. I’d probably just elect to just let those ads run and cost someone plenty for the privilege of advertising to someone who really doesn’t give a rip about their state, food or singer.

Yeah, there really is justice in this world.

Dr “Ad Buster” Gerlich


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