the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

A Better Facebook Targeted Ad


 “Facebook will now use personal information gathered from your activities elsewhere on the Web to more precisely target advertisements on the social network” —

— said the news today, and everyone I know went into panic mode, rushing to opt out of this annoying development, which is precisely what I did.   I certainly don’t want Facebook following me everywhere online, making the incorrect assumptions that because I am looking at some online photos of Brazilian women in bikinis that it means I am planning an upcoming trip to São Paulo.

Facebook is a sneaky motherf*cker.   They presented these new “targeted ads” as a service to the user, as if they are doing us a big favor.

Hey, you — you use Facebook for free and get value from it, right?   And you realize that nothing is for free, so I’m sure you understand why we need to have advertising.  We’re all in this together, right?   We have to pay for all the servers to hold all your cat videos.   And what about the heat in Mark Zuckerberg’s apartment?  You don’t want him to freeze, do you?  Exactly.   So, since we both agree that advertising is required, wouldn’t it be better if you actually received targeted ads for products that you want?

In theory, the argument about targeted ads makes sense.   There is so much noise and junk online, and it is a constant struggle to create an online world that fits the individual user.   And advertising does pay the bills.   Facebook is not the only company that uses our data for targeted advertisement. There is a whole industry of personalized advertisement. Google has been doing this for years.

But the truth is — it doesn’t work. The data is always wrong because, despite what we see in the movies, computers are still pretty stupid. My favorite example of bad advertising personalization is when my friend Rob sent me — via Gmail — a video of his son in Central Park, playing on the swings, and up popped a Google ad for me to join some “Swingers Club” in Orange County, CA.

Facebook trying to figure out your needs as a consumer is similar to you buying a gift for a co-worker that you don’t know very well.  You want to buy a gift that he will like, because you are a nice person, and you don’t want to look like a jerk in front of the others.  So you decide to be a detective and find clues that will help you decide on the ideal gift.  You sneak into his desk drawer at work, looking at his personal paperwork. You google him online, hoping to learn of any special hobbies.  Does he go boating or bowling?  You scan his Instagram stream.   You even follow him home, rifling through his garbage can for clues.

Would all this detective work payoff at the end? Perhaps. Maybe you do discover that he is an avid bowler, and you end up buying him a bowling ball.   What if he already has ten bowling balls, or he only bowls with his “lucky ball.”

We frown on the obvious, because it is unromantic, but the best approach here would be to ASK the co-worker what he wants.

I know.   This concept would forever ruin the joy of surprise at birthday parties, but let’s switch from gift-giving to advertising on Facebook.   Why do companies and marketers waste so much time trying to guess our wants when they could just ASK us?

Imagine that each of us had  an ADVERTISING PERSONALIZATION PAGE on Facebook, run by a conglomerate of marketing and advertising companies.  Each individual user can opt-in or opt-out of the service at will, but those who opt-in will truly get a useful service.  Rather than Facebook following our data like a creepy old guy in a raincoat, we will be honestly tell Facebook about our interests for products and services. So if I am looking to buy a tablet for father’s day or take a trip to Brazil, I would click on these entries on my personalized advertising page, and I will be matched by those companies looking for customers interested in those products.   Once I buy the tablet or take my Brazilian trip, I will unclick these items, and ask for new advertisements — restaurants in New York City perhaps, or bestselling books.

This would be a better method of targeted ads because there would be less guesswork involved.   I would be telling Facebook exactly what I want.   This is the type of advertising engine that I would JOIN.


  1. Mel

    You know, in the first few sentences of your idea, I was thinking, “I’d opt out.” But you’re right, if I could list what sort of books I like to read and then get ads for books? Hells yeah, that would be helpful. And I’d probably end up buying more books. But I don’t get ads for books. I get ads for places I would never shop in a trillion years.

  2. Kizz

    They’re afraid that too many folks will opt out or that no one will admit to wanting the Fleshlight ads so they’ll lose an advertiser.

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