Facebook Ads Target You Where It Hurts

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By Rachel Beckman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 3, 2008

My Facebook page called me fat.

Maybe it's my age, my sex or the fact that it knew I was engaged, but the site decided I was a gal who needed to drop a few pounds. And it wasn't shy about its tactics.

This was not a close friend taking me aside, telling me in gentle tones that she'd noticed I'd put on some weight and was there anything going on in my personal life that I needed to talk about?

Oh, no. Every time I logged in to my home page, Facebook's ads screamed at me with all the subtlety of a drill sergeant: "MUFFIN TOP." This particular ad had a picture of someone with said affliction. For those blissfully unacquainted with the slur, it's when a woman wears too-tight jeans and a roll of flab hangs over her waistband.

I posted a status update that said, "Rachel doesn't appreciate her Facebook page telling her that she has a muffin top."

Facebook targets its advertising to users based on the information in their profiles. This is not a new concept, of course. Kids usually see toy ads while they watch Nickelodeon, and women get ads for birth control pills as they watch Lifetime.

But Facebook's data miners know much more about us because we tell them a whole lot more. Facebook knows my birthday, my relationship status and which book I'm reading, among other personal tidbits. The site started turning this information into dollar signs last November with the launch of Facebook Ads, which targets users' presumed areas of interest (or psychological soft spots).

Basically, the subliminal goal of product advertising is to make you feel inadequate and ashamed, because you're not perfect. Your teeth are yellow. Your armpits stink. You're fat. And hairy.

The targeting technology itself will be familiar to users of Google's Gmail, which generates ads based on what its users type in the body of an e-mail. TiVo and Netflix both suggest programming based on what you've been watching. (Remember the "My TiVo Thinks I'm Gay" episode of "The King of Queens"?)

Facebook spokesman Matt Hicks summed up the appeal to advertisers thus:

"If you're a wedding photographer, do you want to waste your money advertising to a general audience? Or do you want to reach those that are engaged?"

After my quaint status update about the muffin top ad, Facebook got even more vicious, like a schoolyard bully provoked by my initial reaction. With the knowledge that I was engaged to be married, the site splashed an ad across the left side of the screen playing into a presumed vulnerability. Do you want to be a fat bride? You'd better go to such-and-such Web site to learn how to lose weight before the big day.

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