Targeting Individuals: Targeted Advertising on Online Social Networks

Targeting Individuals: Targeted Advertising on Online Social Networks

Advertising has always been, or has tried to be, “targeted” at potential and existing customers. The entire purpose of advertising has, and continues to be, to communicate the virtues of a product or services to consumers in the marketplace in an effort to turn potential consumers into actual customers.

In the past, this type of advertising has targeting consumers by adjusting the timing, style and venue of advertisements to reflect trends in consumer demographics. For example, advertisements aired on television during children’s programming are by and large advertising goods and services used by children, such as toys, games and theme parks to name a few. During live coverage of a sporting event such as NHL hockey (which may air at a later time, but on the same channel as children’s programming), different television advertisements are aired, promoting beer, credit cards and new cars, which reflect the perceived interests of this viewer demographic.

The internet and related innovations in online social networking have expanded the different venues available to advertisers in recent years, while also providing marketers with a means of targeting advertisements to specific individuals. Instead of targeting an overarching demographic, such as males aged 20-29, marketers can now use these new technologies to target,

Joe Consumer
Age: 26
Hobbies/Interest: Hockey, Traveling and Rap Music
Student at Osgoode Hall Law School, Class of 2009

Using information that Joe voluntarily posts on his Facebook profile for instance, marketers (who pay Facebook to have access to Joe’s information), can target advertisements to Joe with unprecedented specificity. The moment Joe updates his profile to reflect his new found interest in rock climbing, advertisers of rock climbing equipment are able to display their advertisements in the side panel of Joe’s computer screen.

While many, if not most, consumers do not object from a privacy standpoint to having advertising targeted at them as a member of a larger demographic group, advertising targeted at specific individuals may be a cause for alarm. The fact that advertisers have acquired a profile of information on individual consumers, ranging from information on age and sex, to favourite televisions shows, movies and music artists, can be frightening. More frightening still is that most users of social networking sites appear unaware that the information they post on their profile page is being used by advertisers for this purpose. Lengthy, complex and often confusing privacy policies and terms and conditions documents (which users are required to agree to before opening a account on a social networking website) may be one reason for apparent consumer unawareness. The fact that the facilitating technologies of individually targeted advertising are relatively new is yet another.

From a pragmatic standpoint, one could argue that anything posted on a website is technically out of the control of the person posting it once it has been made available to the public. Thus, one should not consider anything posted on a webpage as “private”. While this may be practically true, there still remains the possibility that laws may be drafted which set out guidelines and limit the use of what is considered “private” information posted by users on social networking websites.

A lack of public awareness on this issue arguably should not be taken as implied consent by members of social networking sites to have their personal information used by advertisers. From a public policy perspective, users of social networking sites should not only be made aware of how their information is used, they should have a voice in any subsequent legal debates respecting privacy legislation in this area.

As a member of an online social networking website, one might begin to foray into the potential privacy issues posed by individually targeted advertising by reviewing the information posted on one’s personal profile page. That information is a part of what comprises one’s individual consumer profile in the databases of an unknown number of advertising and marketing firms. Do you feel like your personal privacy has been compromised?