Why I'm Tired of Targeted Advertising
I am a woman in the ‘18-24’ demographic. And I am getting a bit bored of targeting advertising online.
Have you ever noticed it? Although I’ve disabled youtube ads on my computer, accessing videos on my phone reminds me that I am fertile. Because every other advert I get is for clearblue pregnancy tests. You know, the only pregnancy test that can tell you how far along you are before your first scan. The one when, at the end, the non-pregnant friend says “Oh my God I think I’m going to cry!”. I know this from memory because I’ve seen it that many times.
It’s the same on Facebook. I get the normal adverts which somewhat correlate with recent searches, but I also get adverts that I’m pretty sure are gender specific, and nothing to do with my search history: egg donation, period products, beauty treatments, fat lasering, abortion clinics. My personal favourite has been a sperm donor treatment facility. Being a woman between the ages of 18 and 24, I would undoubtedly be interested in the myriad of ways I could conceive the child I will inevitably have. To be honest, it’s all I think about. Thank you, Facebook, for looking out for all of us broody millennials.
The problem with this kind of advertising is not only that it is based on heteronormative and gender stereotypical assumptions, but that it also reinforces them. These types of advertisements can be very upsetting, even triggering, for individuals who have experienced fertility problems or have had traumatic abortion experiences, or people struggling with gender dysphoria. To be inadvertently told that because you identify as a woman you should by default have a vested interest in period products or pregnancy tests tells us that having a period or the capacity to become pregnant are the most essential features of womanhood. I know I’m not the only woman who doesn’t think my gender is defined by the presence or lack thereof of menstrual cramps.
You may think this is overdramatic. Facebook only requires its users to give two pieces of information - a birthday and a gender, and so if a brand like Always sanitary towels wants to reach an audience it’s not going to pay to advertise to those who identify online as men.
It’s just that adverts for things like pregnancy tests or abortion clinics remind me, as an unmarried woman in her early twenties, that society at large still holds a woman responsible for unplanned pregnancies. Even though we know intellectually that it takes two parties to conceive, seeing these adverts tells me that if I were to get an abortion, that’s my choice alone, and not a mutual or shared responsibility.* And that’s a pretty uncomfortable message to be getting everyday.
Targeted advertising in this respect can also be more sinister. In 2016, Rewire reported that anti-choice campaigners had been using ‘mobile geo-fencing’ to send advertisements to women’s smartphones while they were located in Planned Parenthood clinics. I for one find this appalling. I’m sure many readers would agree.
On a more positive note, although largely unrelated to the issues I have with social media advertising, there have been some recent developments in the advertising world concerning gender. In July of this year, the ASA (Advertising Standards Authority) stated that they would be drawing up new rules against gender stereotypical adverts that will come into effect in 2018. This was after the ASA had conducted a review in response to the public reaction to Protein World's advert for its 'beach body ready' slimming range.
It's not clear what these rules exactly will entail. However, the ASA has spoken against adverts that feature men failing to complete household tasks, or those that suggest specific activities for young boys and girls - for example Aptamil's TV advert for baby formula, where a baby boy grows up to be a mathematician, and a baby girl a ballerina.
This article is not an argument against targeted advertising per se - in fact I've found some really amazing women's brands through targeted advertising. Neither am I saying this is one of the most pressing issues feminism has to deal with. It just hit me, scrolling through Facebook, that the two pieces of information I have given the website means that everyday I’m confronted with reminders that my male counterparts are not.
My online experience is tailored to mimic my position as a woman in the wider world, and it’s just as subtle and subversive as real life.
* To clarify, I am not saying that an abortion is anything other than a woman's decision alone to make. What frustrates me is that the responsibility for that decision is also placed entirely on the woman's shoulders, ignoring the fact that a whole other person was also involved in creating the pregnancy.
** If you find tailored advertising just as annoying as I do and want to do something about it, try changing the age and gender you give to your social media and email accounts. The adverts you get will change. Trust me.