Does effective digital advertising lead to less inclusivity and more discrimination?

Few issues in digital advertising have bubbled malevolently beneath the mainstream chatter like that of inclusivity and discrimination.

And to be more specific the question: is digital advertising discriminatory due to the widespread use of targeting and user profiling?

It’s a concern that dates back to the start of online consumer profiling. This is the ability to target advertising at groups of users based on attributes or behaviours. These could be attributes like age, gender, marital status, geographic location, or behaviours such as pages or websites visited, likes or follows, or what the user has bought or browsed.

Are targeting algorithms breeding discrimination?

Facebook has been in the crosshairs of the discrimination debate in online advertising from the beginning. Its sales pitch to advertisers is premised on the foundation of using its user data about people’s background, birthdays and social occasions to serve them targeted ads.

The American Civil Liberties Union was one of the first organisations to take on Facebook after seeing potentially discriminatory advertising on its platform. They claimed that Facebook as an employer had used targeting options in the Facebook Ads portal to show job adverts to male Facebook users only. Thus, Facebook had discriminated against all women and non-binary users.

And while not all targeted advertising can realistically be classed as discriminatory, there have been reports from The Times and ProPublica about Facebook’s targeting algorithms excluding users from seeing ads based on gender and age.

Targeting in the housing, jobs and credit sectors

In March 2019 Facebook announced that it would no longer allow advertisers in specific categories to show their ads to people of a certain race, gender or age group.

The affected categories are housing, jobs and credit. Advertisers in these categories will need to use a separate section of Facebook’s Ads platform which will not have race, gender or age as targeting options. These options will also not be available to build ad groups.

It’s being billed an important step towards ensuring advertising does not discriminate, and taken at face value an admirable move from Facebook. But it’s important to remember that this change is part of Facebook’s settlement of five separate historic law suits brought against the company for discrimination.

And when we scratch deeper these changes from Facebook might be perceived as cosmetic only. US federal law prohibits ad discrimination in three key categories - housing, jobs and credit. The same categories affected by Facebook’s changes. Facebook advertisers working in all other categories will continue to access its normal Ads platform, which does allow ad targeting based on age, religion and gender, and also allows advertisers to build ad groups using these options.

But targeting drives more effective marketing doesn’t it?

Facebook is far from the only platform, particularly in the world of display, where ads can be targeted based on principles that would commonly in our society be considered discriminatory.

There is an uneasy reality within online advertising that it frequently allows organisations to discriminate against individuals based on age, ethnicity, religion, and even their social preferences that in other social circumstances would be considered inappropriate. However, in the world of online advertising the ability to target users is heralded as a pioneering concept that produces more effective marketing results and a better, more appropriate, user experience.

So, will Facebook’s changes trigger a wider recognition that online ad targeting is a potential form of discrimination? Laws in the US and Europe will continue to make socially unacceptable forms of discrimination legally binding, and this could affect a large number of major advertising networks in the years to come.

Facebook’s well-intentioned changes to end potentially discriminatory ads could be the ad industry’s watershed, heralding a new consciousness to ensure online advertising represents diversity and inclusivity.

Or will the ad industry take a more pragmatic view? COO Cheryl Sandberg acknowledged the recent changes would potentially make advertising less efficient on Facebook. She’s almost certainly right. The online advertising industry has sold itself on the ‘targeting = efficiency’ mantra for many years with plenty of data to back up the case.

What do internet users think?

And of course, what of the humble internet user? Far from being anti-inclusivity, have the advances in online ad targeting over the last decade made the ads we see online more relevant to us? And potentially more useful and interesting. Should discrimination really be the key issue in online advertising when discrimination is not done with negative intent, but to enhance a product or service?

A balance between inclusivity and efficiency will probably be online advertising’s future when it comes to targeting options.