This ad has been brought to you by you, part II

Is targeted advertising better for users? If Facebook ads are any indication, the benefits (such as they are) are not worth the risks.

Last week I wrote about how data brokers like Rapleaf mine social networks to create detailed (yet allegedly “anonymous”) user profiles, which they then sell to advertisers. The rationale for profiling is that it offers people ads that are “more interesting” to users – and thus more effective for advertisers. So it’s a “win win.” Right? Ummm, not exactly.

For one thing, those profiles are not anonymous, as the Wall Street Journal pointed out. In fact, just last week Facebook revealed that some of its developers had sold personally identifiable information about app users to data brokers. Nice.

For another, ad targeting circa 2010 is kind of like throwing water balloons at a moving car – you might land one on the windshield, but most will end up splattering the street.

[ See also: This ad has been brought to you by you, part I ]

Facebook is a good example to look at for ad targeting, because its business model is based on tailoring ads to the information you’ve volunteered up on your profiles. As with Google text ads, anyone can buy a Facebook ad and specify who sees it; the difference is that Facebook lets you drill down to an amazingly detailed degree. 

facebook ad for esarcasm.com

For example: I could target the above ad to single straight women between the ages of 18 and 55 living in New York City who are fans of “Sex and the City.” Facebook will even tell me how many Facebook members fit that profile (just under 19,000). If I wanted to zero in even more, I can narrow down to women who graduated from a specific college or work in a specific place, as long as those organizations have Facebook profiles. (And yes, I can also target gay women or men, if I wanted.)

facebook ad targeting

So with targeting this precise, these ads must really be zeroing in on the people they want to reach, right? Well, maybe. The Network Advertising Initiative claims targeted ads are twice as effective as non-targeted ones. (Of course they would – the NAI’s members are online ad companies.)

Even if that were true, though, judging by the ads I see on my account, the targeting is spotty at best. Take these recent ads that showed up on my Facebook page the other day.

facebook personalized ads

1. Find Story Sources Fast. Obviously this ad for a service that matches reporters to sources is keyed to my stated profession (journalism). And it’s a good match – in fact, I’m already a member of Reporter Connection. (Truth be told though, there are services – like Peter Shankman’s Help A Reporter – that do the same thing much better.) Still, this one gets a Ka-Ching! for being spot on.

2. Buffy Jones Soda. I’m a big fan of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” though that’s not mentioned in my profile. (I do include “Angel,” the Buffy spinoff, among my favorite shows.) Even so, would I really drink a special brand of soda just because there’s a picture of Sarah Michelle Geller on the can? No. So this ad is a Fail.

3. Love your alma mater? This looks like an ad for UC Berkeley, of which I am a proud graduate (Go Bears). But it’s really an ad for a line of Victoria's Secret pajamas aimed at co-eds. Did I put “cross dressing” among my Likes & Interests? I don’t think so. In fact, this ad just pisses me off, because it pretends to be about something it's not. Fail!

4. Washington Post. Sure, I like the Post just fine (save for that idiot Charles Krauthammer). So the ad matches my interests, I guess, but it would also match anyone who reads the news -- a pretty unfocused bunch. And since I already read the Post on a semi-regular basis, this ad does nothing for the people who paid for it. Call this one a Coin Flip.

So two Fails, one Ka-Ching!, and a Coin Flip. Maybe better than random ads, but not exactly a home run – and certainly not worth the potential downsides and dangers of ad profiling, as far as I can see.

Interestingly, Facebook recently applied for a patent on “inferential advertising.” Apparently not enough people offer sufficient profile information for targeting, so Facebook wants to use your friends’ profile information to send you ads, presuming that you and your friends share common interests.

IMHO this will make targeting even less accurate and more spammy. Just because I like “Angel” doesn’t mean that PR person I spoke to on the phone once two years ago but is now in my Facebook posse will like it too. And maybe I don’t want Facebook using my information to target other people with ads. (What are the odds they’ll ask permission first?)

It’s yet another good reason to opt out of profiling when possible, and to be more circumspect about what you share on Facebook.

For the record, ITworld TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan a) does not wear women’s clothing, and b) loathes Sex and the City (sorry, SATC fans). Visit his snarky humor site eSarcasm (Geek Humor Gone Wild) or follow him on Twitter:@tynan_on_tech.

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