Face(book) the Facts––You’re Being Targeted!

I have a fake Facebook birthday. I chose leap day for my fake Facebook birthday, so this is the first year I’ve actually celebrated it. My Facebook friends are a mix of long-time friends, close and distant relatives, acquaintances from dancing, friends of friends, and current and former colleagues, so I got a mix of “happy birthday” and “happy fake birthday” wishes on my wall, which was awkward. To be clear, I’d have no problem with any of my Facebook friends knowing my real birthday—it’s Facebook itself that I’m leary of.

When I first joined Facebook, I used my real birthday (so I’m sure it’s still stored on their servers). Then one day, a sidebar ad popped up that said something like “29-year old women prefer Stay-Young Face Creme.” Except it didn’t say 29, it said my real age at the time. If I were 29, I’m sure I wouldn’t have minded. But I’m a wee bit older than that, and I did mind. In fact, that micro-targeted ad creeped me out so much that I changed my birthday and birth year.

Because my fake Facebook age is 104, I started seeing ads for retirement homes and other products targeted to the elderly, which made me chuckle. But Facebook is too smart to fool for long. Recently, I’ve been getting ads related to my interest  in swing dancing, like ads for dance classes and vintage clothing. I don’t have swing dancing listed as an interest in my profile, so clearly Facebook has gleaned that bit of information from culling my Likes (which include local swing bands), my Events (which include local dance events), and my friends’ interests. Very sneaky!

So what does this have to do with math or math education? Well, the brains behind all of these sneaky, creepy data-mining algorithms are those of statisticians. This article from the New York Times Magazine describes how Target has become a master of targeted (ha ha!) advertising. Target assigns every shopper a “Guest ID” number and keeps tabs on everything they buy and every interaction they have with the store. Target can build a detailed profile of their shoppers using both the shoppers’ interactions and information purchased from marketing services.

Also linked to your Guest ID is demographic information like your age, whether you are married and have kids, which part of town you live in, how long it takes you to drive to the store, your estimated salary, whether you’ve moved recently, what credit cards you carry in your wallet and what Web sites you visit. Target can buy data about your ethnicity, job history, the magazines you read, if you’ve ever declared bankruptcy or got divorced, the year you bought (or lost) your house, where you went to college, what kinds of topics you talk about online, whether you prefer certain brands of coffee, paper towels, cereal or applesauce, your political leanings, reading habits, charitable giving and the number of cars you own.

Target wanted a way to market to women who were pregnant before they had their babies, so their brainy statisticians identified some shopping behaviors that correlated to pregnancy. Through marketing testing, Target’s marketeers realized that pregnant women were put off by overtly targeted coupons and ads for baby products, so they wove ads for baby products in with ads for regular household goods.

And we found out that as long as a pregnant woman thinks she hasn’t been spied on, she’ll use the coupons. She just assumes that everyone else on her block got the same mailer for diapers and cribs. As long as we don’t spook her, it works.

I find this both wondrous and appalling! The success of corporate advertising has always depended on knowing their customers. But now Target, Google, Facebook, and others have access to unprecedented amounts of data about us. And their ongoing success is tied to their ever-growing expertise in understanding our behavior—and how to influence it—by analyzing these data. The article notes that better understanding of human habits and behavior can be used to positive effect, like helping people break bad habits (eating junk food, biting fingernails) and develop healthy habits. But in the corporate world, this understanding is used to produce exceedingly effective advertisements.

Those early ads on Facebook that stated my exact age were crude and counter-productive. But I can see that Facebook has evolved. It cleverly ignores my fake birthday and instead displays ads based on my behavior on the site—”Liking” a jazz singer or a television show—and the behavior of my friends. (I get ads for Nordstrom because one or more of my Facebook friends Liked it.) I do what I can to remain an enigma to Facebook. But I know that some day, Facebook will post an ad on my wall that is so perfectly targeted to me that I’ll actually click on it. And when that day comes, I guess I’ll cave in and list my real birthday.

4 thoughts on “Face(book) the Facts––You’re Being Targeted!”

  1. Shortly after I posted a “Happy Pi Day” status update on Facebook a few years ago, an ad popped up for a T-shirt that had ‘i’ talking to ‘pi’ saying “be rational” and ‘pi’ said back, “get real.” I caved, clicked on it, and bought the T-shirt. It did make me realize that Facebook is looking at everything we post, like, and comment on and is targeting ads based on our activity.

    1. As much as I complain about Facebook, it does make a lot of things easier. They couldn’t get away with all that data-grabbing if they weren’t providing a service and features that are useful to a lot of us.

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