Social media: which adverts are targeted at you?

20 November 2017

Interview with

Dr David Stillwell, University of Cambridge

If you have a presence on the internet, with a page on Facebook for example, every time you use it you leave behind digital footprints that reveal an enormous amount about your personality; because what you tend to like looking at is being logged. And now researchers have shown that advertisers can use this freely-available data to tailor-make adverts that make you 50% more likely to click on their products. David Stillwell spoke to Chris Smith...

David - What we previously showed is that just clicking on these things, just liking things on Facebook can say a lot about you. It can say how intelligent are you; what is your personality; what makes you unique. So that we’re asking in this study is, given that it’s possible to show those, very, very personal things about you, how can companies use this to advertise better, and how worried should we be as consumers in terms of privacy?

Chris - So if I see something on Facebook and I click “like” against it, you can extract data from what I have like or chosen specifically to flag up as of interest to me, to begin to make deductions about my personality and my likely life choices?

David - Exactly. If you like, for example, on Facebook computers, then obviously you can sell computers to that person. But actually it shows something more personal, which is that people who like computers tend to be introverted. Which means that if you’re selling something that isn’t anything to do with computers, you can use the fact that you know someone is more likely to be introverted to sell products in a way that means they’re more likely to be interested.

Chris - How have you proved that that’s the case?

David - What we did is we worked with a few different companies who were running adverts on Facebook, and we got them to target those adverts at people who we knew were more likely to be introverted or extraverted based on their Facebook likes. Then we changed the adverts to either appeal to introverts or extraverts.

So, for example, we worked with a cosmetic company and we had an extroverted advert, which was a dance like no-one’s watching. It was a picture of a woman in a club, she’s sort of got her hands in the air just dancing around and everyone’s looking at there because she’s the centre of attention, and that’s the ideal for an extrovert.

Then we had a different advert for introverts. This was “beauty doesn’t have to shout.” It’s a woman looking in a mirror; it’s about her own opinion of herself; it’s not about what anyone else thinks, and this is what an introvert looks for.

Chris - And you know that do you that extroverts will engage better with the extroverted type advert, introverts with their focused advert?

David - Exactly. That’s the theory. What we found from targeting this adverts is when the extroverts see the extroverted add, then they are 40% more likely to click and they buy 50% more stuff. Same thing with the introverts but when they see the introverted ad.

Chris - So when you tailor the type of advert that a person sees to the personality of the potential buyer, they’re much more likely to engage with the advert and to complete the sale? Haven’t advertisers known this for donkey’s ages though, this is not new, or is it?

David - What’s different here is that whereas previously you might have a sort of an ideal consumer in mind. If you’re putting an advert on television then everyone who sees that advert sees the same advert. But now, with microtargeting on social networks or the internet in general, you can advertise to a specific person given that you’ve made a prediction about that specific person. So you’re really seeing a very personalised advert to you as an individual.

Chris - I suppose, in some respects, that may be beneficial because it means that I see things that I’m more likely to want to engage with more of the time. You could you use that for good because you could show me positive health messages, for instance, if you wanted to target someone who was at risk of depression, for example, or mental illness you could focus your advertising at that person, reach that person who needed that help. It could be exploited by nefarious operators though, couldn’t it?

David - Exactly. So what we’re saying is that you can essentially persuade someone better given that you’ve got all this information about them that comes from the internet. You can persuade people to do things that are in their benefit so encourage people to save money, encourage people to take advantage of a pension. You can also persuade them to do things that are not in their benefit. If you notice that someone has an addictive personality, you might try to sell them gambling products and that is not going to be in their interest.

Chris - The data that you were exploiting on these users on Facebook because looking at your paper it was huge numbers, like 3 million people is the sample size that you’ve looked at. That data’s freely available, it’s just out there, you can extract that as a third party?

David - Exactly. Any advertiser can go on Facebook and target people who like a specific single product so that’s what we’re doing here. So just given one like on Facebook you’re seeing a specific advert from us. But now imagine that you are Facebook, or you are Google and you’ve got all of the data about one individual, then you can target adverts or products based on everything that someone likes, not just one thing.

Chris - What does the legislation say about this - is this legal?

David - What’s interesting about the data protection act in the UK and also the General Data Protection Regulation that’s coming in across Europe, and coming to the UK in May next year is that one of the key planks is consent to share your information. But what’s missing here is the fact that I click on an advert, I am now telling that advertiser that I am an extroverted person, or I am intelligent person, or whatever information, and I don’t even realise what information I’m giving away by clicking on an advert. I’ve never consented to give that information away, I’ve just clicked it, and I don’t even know who that advert is targeted at, so I don’t know what information I have given away.


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