John Baer: Targeted Facebook ads make people want to unfriend candidates

President Obama on Tuesday campaigns in Iowa, the state that shot him into the national spotlight in 2008, when he won its Democratic caucus. In its 2012 GOP contest, Romney finished second behind Rick Santorum.
President Obama on Tuesday campaigns in Iowa, the state that shot him into the national spotlight in 2008, when he won its Democratic caucus. In its 2012 GOP contest, Romney finished second behind Rick Santorum. (PHOTOS: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Posted: August 16, 2012

IF YOU'RE on Facebook and you or a Facebook friend "like" a political candidate's page, you could become a target and a tool of tailored political ads that might even include you or your friend's picture.

As in "Obama for America" or "Romney for President" sending you an ad that says, "Your friend Sandy likes Obama/Romney. You will, too."

Even if you're not on Facebook, there's so much data about you that's available to marketers - where you live, what you buy, whether you vote, your political registration, your income, charitable donations, ethnicity, etc. - that you might get tailored political ads on your computer aimed specifically at your interests.

Sound Orwellian?

Well, this data-mining-for-targeted-ads practice is out there and growing.

And - according to research by the Annenberg School of Communication at Penn - when it comes to politics, you don't like it.

Penn recently did the first-ever national survey on the issue, polling 1,500 adult Internet users. A whopping 86 percent said they don't want such political ads.

If you're thinking, "Hey, who wants online ads period?" think about this: That 86 percent is much higher than the 61 percent who told the surveyors they didn't want tailored ads for "products and services."

And a majority of those opposed to targeted political ads (64 percent) say their support of a candidate is likely to decrease if they find that candidate's campaign is buying info about them.

Clearly campaigns bank on the fact that most folks have no idea how much personal data marketers can collect and sell for use in such ads.

And while "microtargeting" isn't new, the Penn study says it's experiencing unprecedented growth, including on mobile phones and tablets.

"It's hard to escape the conclusion that our survey is tapping into a deep discomfort over behavioral targeting and tailored advertising when it comes to politics. Political campaigning is moving in a direction starkly at odds with what the public believes should take place," the study says.

Penn professor Joseph Turow, lead researcher of the Annenberg effort, says there's more opposition to targetting with political ads than there is with regular ads, because "people take politics seriously [and] they don't want people tracking them."

Still, such ads can be effective.

Penn cites targeting used by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) that helped him beat Republican tea-party favorite Sharron Angle in 2010. His campaign individualized messages about health care and used Facebook to target young people and gays through profile data such as age and "relationship status."

In 2009, when New Jersey gubernatorial candidate Chris Christie was under fire from Gov. Jon Corzine for supporting cuts in health-care coverage, including mammograms, Christie's campaign, according to reports in the New York Times, targeted a Web ad to Republican women searching online info on breast cancer.

Turow says, "It may work in the short term, but in the long term it may make many people bitter about the political process."

Also, Turow notes, everything being done is protected by the First Amendment and the likelihood of government or congressional intervention is slim.

"We're talking about a political-marketing industry being regulated by the very people who are hiring the political marketers," Turow says.

So the practice seems to be here to stay.

Penn notes that people increasingly will be aware of it; they just won't know how pols define the interests of those getting the ads or what messages friends, neighbors, co-workers or those who disagree are getting.

The study suggests "data-driven tailored political communication" may end up viewed as an anti-democratic way to practice democracy.

This reminds me of a time, before the Internet and YouTube, when pols could safely say one thing to rural audiences and another to urbanites.

Technology ended that. Newer technology is bringing it back - in even more selective ways.


Contact John Baer at baerj@phillynews.com. For recent columns: philly.com/JohnBaer. Read his blog at philly.com/BaerGrowls.

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