Final Research Paper – Are Your Ads Racially Profiling You?

My final research paper is written in the style of an online journalistic article intended for a news/culture website.

Are Your Ads Racially Profiling You?

Happy December! If you’ve scrolled through your Facebook Timeline in the past week, you’ve probably seen an advertisement for the sweater you almost bought on Black Friday still floating around. Or maybe one for an app you once downloaded but recently deleted, or an event that all of your friends are going to.

But sometimes, you see an ad for something you’re sure you didn’t Google. You might have found yourself saying aloud, “can my phone hear me?” Or worse, “can my laptop read my mind?” Do you ever feel like the ads on your Instagram feed are targeting you in some way?

Well, they might be. And if they are, chances are they’re racist. Now, that might feel like quite a big jump, but your social media has been profiling you since you got it – you just might not have realized.

If I head into my Facebook settings and dive deep into the “Ads” category, I can find just how Facebook categorizes me (and thus assigns me to advertisers) under “Your information.” Facebook knows that I’m a Frequent Visitor of Fast Food Restaurants (rude). But it also knows that I’m a Frequent Visitor of Indian Restaurants – and advertisers can probably make the very logical jump to the fact that I am Indian. Facebook has also figured out that I am part of the Democratic Party, that I receive a Liberal Arts Education, and that I use a mobile phone, and it has literally put me into those boxes and listed them out for me to see.

And this is apart from all of the information I readily input into my Facebook profile manually – that I’m from Orlando, that I’m Muslim, that I’m single. And I have connected my Instagram and Twitter and Spotify to my account, so it has all of that data to source from, too. And then it has my browsing cookies, which linger to influence ad space across my user experience. And don’t forget, I’ve connected my Macbook to my iPhone to my iPad – could that be influencing what I see too?

Targeted advertising does make some kind of sense. Like Louise Matsakis says in her article “What’s Not Included in Facebook’s ‘Download Your Data,’” “advertisements for dentures or funeral insurance don’t run on Nickelodeon” because that wouldn’t make any sense. I would’ve been pretty mad if as a pre-teen watching Spongebob my favorite Scooby-Doo Chia Pet commercial was replaced with a 1-800 number for arthritis medication. But how far is too far? When does targeted advertising get problematic? Like when teenagers Googling “do I have an eating disorder” are confronted with ads for scam diet teas, or low-income men of color are targeted for cigarette ads?

Targeted advertising has existed for a long time, even before the Chia Pet commercials on Nickelodeon. According to Edward Lama Wonkeryor in his book Dimensions of Racism in Advertising, advertising has three rules: “advertise to people ready, willing, and able to buy; use the media which reach them; and make advertisements that would win their business” (1). From the eighteenth to halfway through the twentieth century advertisers “virtually ignored African American consumers” because it was believed that white consumers “had the economic power” to buy consumer goods (Wonkeryor 8). Advertisers believed that black people didn’t even qualify for rule number one. Historically, people of color weren’t included in the advertising demographics whatsoever. You could say that this is targeted in and of itself – the intentional disinclusion of a demographic group from seeing an advertisement is discriminatory.

After World War II advertisers realized that they had been completely wrong, so they started targeting advertisements to the African American population. Predictably, they did this wrong too, and appealed to them at a “marginal, demeaning, and erroneous level” (Wonkeryor 8). The targeted tabacco ads I mentioned above? Those have been prevalent since the 1960s in African American communities in print and broadcast media (Wonkeryor 9). Even now, “black children [are] three times more likely to recognize advertisements for Newport, the most popular menthol [cigarette] brand” than other children. Tobacco companies have “targeted direct mail promotions” in black neighborhoods and “placed advertising in publications… that are popular with black audiences.” In 2011, it was found that Ebony magazine was almost 10 times more likely than People magazine to contain an advertisement for menthol cigarettes.” Detrimental and harmful advertising that is targeted to a specific minority group has existed for a very long time.

So how does this translate to social media? Well, social media advertising is the epitome of targeted advertising, and it is one of the most prevalent ways that consumers access advertisement in this day and age. And as traditional retail moves more and more towards the World Wide Web, with Amazon Pantry delivering your groceries and the growth of entirely online clothing retailers like ASOS and NastyGal, social media advertising becomes integral to the success of a company. According to BigCommerce, an ecommerce platform that includes social media and influencer advertising for its customers, “the ability to immediately and consistently bring in new customers is a HUGE deal” for online retailers. If companies are serving their customers online, they need to advertise online. And if people are only ever one click away from spending their money on a company’s website, targeting the right customers becomes integral to their survival.

There are a lot of facets to social media advertising. Companies are still paying for more traditional forms of online advertising, like banner or pop-up ads, just reimagined as sponsored posts on your Facebook or Instagram timelines. But they’re also starting to pay people to advertise for them. It’s the Celebrity Tennis Shoe Endorsement’s cooler younger sister – instead of Shaquille O’Neil parading Reeboks through the commercials of the 90s, the most popular 16-year-old fashion YouTubers are selling your middle schooler coupon codes for Glossier.

Influencers add a new layer to the racism and discrimination that seems to pervade advertising. There are two elements to think about when considering influencers’, well, influence. The first is: who are the influencers? And the second: who are their audiences? Or maybe the more important questions are: who aren’t the influencers? And what audiences aren’t being reached?

Influencers, or at least the ones with inordinately large followings that garner the most attention from advertisers, seem to skew alarmingly white. It’s not that social media itself is skewed white, but influencers who are able to put in the work that allows them to gain large followings have to have a certain amount of privilege. In an article about YouTube influencers in particular, The Independent claims that “white people are generally the ones with the disposable income and time necessary to do the job.” Becoming a social media influencer requires things like high quality camera equipment, expensive clothes and makeup, editing software, and a large amount of time to take photos or videos, edit them, and post them daily. Privileged people have that kind of time and money. And to be candid, white people have that kind of time and money. So when influencers are mainly white, what does that say to their followings? The industry is reinforcing the old narrative that in order to be successful, well-liked, and get money you have to be white. But if you buy this $45 facemask, you can take the shortcut!

This all goes back to what Wonkeryor says has been happening for decades. People of color can’t identify with the white, wealthy influencers that perforate their timelines. And by choosing almost exclusively white influencers, companies are reinforcing the idea that people of color cannot be wealthy enough to buy their products, so they refuse to advertise to those demographics. It’s pretty easy math: no influencers of color, no consumers of color. Discrimination strikes again. What happened in the 60s is happening again, just more high tech this time.

And like Wonkeryor says, this is harmful to everyone. Not only does it reinforce dangerous and discriminatory and downright racist stereotypes that have been allowed to pervade media and influence culture for far too long, but it’s also just false. On the very first page of his book he says that African American consumers want advertisers to realize that “every dollar [is]… equal to the other regardless of the hand that [holds] it” (Wokeryor 1). People of color are legitimate consumers of media – according to Statista, which sources its data from the Pew Research Center, a larger percentage of Hispanic and black adults use social networks than white adults. People of color are consuming social media, and thus social media advertising, and deserve to be represented in the media that they consume. 

Even if we don’t want to admit it, advertising is a key feature of our modern media landscape. We see ads every day – commercials on TV during breakfast, ad spots in the podcasts we listen to on the way to work, billboards on the buses we drive past, and even stamps on our eggs. They’re inescapable, and as they filter their way into our social media it’s imperative that we remain critical of how they got there and what they’re saying. Advertisements can be lovely, inspiring, wonderful things, but they can also be wildly detrimental to the growth and change of media. Targeted ads should continue to show us things we’d like, because we would like them. But they shouldn’t target us for the things we can’t control about ourselves – race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic class, or otherwise.

 

Works Cited

Wonkeryor, Edward Lama, et al. Dimensions of Racism in Advertising From Slavery to the Twenty-First Century. Lang, Peter New York, 2015.

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Creative Project Final

Here is the final draft of my creative project.

 

For my creative project about discriminatory targeted advertising towards minority groups I decided to create an advertisement that is somewhat anti-advertisement. To make the ad, I drew each separate component of the video of the iPad app Procreate using an Apple Pencil. Sometimes I loosely traced screenshots of my own social media profiles to get the spacing right, but for the most part I embraced the doodle-esque nature of the project and freehanded the elements. I tried to include some funny easter eggs in the comments or likes (Claire Sterk liked one of the posts in the first shot of the video). I separately drew and saved the post-it notes that appear in the other parts of the video. Then, I pieced together all of the parts of the video in a very long Photoshop files and took a screen-grabbed video of me scrolling through the elements while I listened to the recording I took of the audio to get the timing right. I made any timing corrections necessary when I edited in Adobe Premiere Pro.

The project explains the broad purpose of my project. Because it was intended to be a spoof of a social media advertisement, I needed to keep the content at one minute or under (which I succeeded at doing exactly). It construes my argument into an opinion that is trying to persuade the audience to do something and act on the content being presented, like an ad. Ads want clicks. So does this video.

Elements of the project directly reference some of the biggest points of the argument that I make in my research paper. Racially targeted tabacco ads throughout history most effectively demonstrate my point that targeted ads exist and can be harmful and discriminatory, and the video presents an example of one. I chose to simplify this idea by just having an advertisement directly advertising cigarettes, but there are strict rules on tabacco advertisement in any public space. Tabacco companies can’t just place ads like that on Twitter, but they can sneakily sponsor your favorite content creators (who reach certain target audiences that match the demographics that they are trying to reach) to endorse their products. The video presents a more simplified and direct version of this to make a point, but tabacco companies still more often target people of color, which is the point the video highlights.

The video also broadly details how social media networks categorize users. In my paper, I detail how social media networks sell that data to advertisers and advertisers use that data to show you ads. It becomes harmful when they use that data to make assumptions about you based on your identity – you must be rich because you attend an elite university. You must be a person of color because you frequent Indian restaurants. You must be poor because you’re a person of color. So we won’t show you ads for expensive homes in town. On purpose. We will actively disclude you. The categories shows are genuinely categories that I am placed in on my own Facebook – I made none of them up.

The video aims to explain categorization and how that can negatively affect the people it targets. It does so by explaining categorization concisely and by giving concrete examples of it. This relates to class because we talked a lot about passivity and advertising. Ad agencies capitalize on this “waiting room” ideology more and more as social media grows. Now the waiting rooms are everywhere, so how do you catch a user’s attention? Supposedly by showing them an ad just for them. But how far is too far?

Research Paper Rough Draft

Happy early December! If you’ve scrolled through your Facebook Timeline in the past week, you’ve probably seen an advertisement for the sweater you almost bought on Black Friday still floating around. Or maybe it’s for an app you once downloaded but recently deleted, or an event that all of your friends are going to.

But sometimes, you see an ad for something you’re sure you didn’t Google. You might have found yourself saying aloud, “can my phone hear me?” Or worse, “can my laptop read my mind?” Do you ever feel like the ads on your Instagram feed are targeting you in some way?

Well, they might be. And if they are, chances are they’re racist. Now, that might feel like quite a big jump, but your social media has been profiling you since you got it – you just might not have realized.

If I head into my Facebook settings and dive deep into the “Ads” category, I can find just how Facebook categorizes me (and thus assigns me to advertisers) under “Your information.” Facebook knows that I’m a Frequent Visitor of Fast Food Restaurants (rude). But it also knows that I’m a Frequent Visitor of Indian Restaurants – and advertisers can probably make the very logical jump to the fact that I am Indian. Facebook has also figured out that I am part of the Democratic Party, that I receive a Liberal Arts Education, and that I use a mobile phone.

And this is apart from all of the information I readily input into my Facebook profile manually – that I’m from Orlando, that I’m Muslim, that I’m single, that I have connected my Instagram and Twitter and Spotify to my account. And then it has all of that data to source from, too. And then it has my browsing cookies, which linger to influence ad space across my user experience. And don’t forget, I’ve connected my Macbook to my iPhone to my iPad – could that be influencing what I see too?

Targeted advertising does make some kind of sense. Like Louise Matsakis says in her article “What’s Not Included in Facebook’s ‘Download Your Data,’” “advertisements for dentures or funeral insurance don’t run on Nickelodeon” because that wouldn’t make any sense. I would’ve been pretty mad if as a pre-teen watching Spongebob my favorite Scooby-Doo Chia Pet commercial was replaced with a 1-800 number for arthritis medication. But how far is too far? When does targeted advertising get problematic? Like when teenagers Googling “do I have an eating disorder” are confronted with ads for scam diet teas, or low-income men of color are targeted for cigarette ads?

 

Go into the history of targeted advertising – how have ads on TV and the radio been racially influenced?

Then go into social media advertising and how it has evolved away from traditional advertising.

What is targeted advertising? Go into the logistics of targeted Facebook advertising, including statistics. How has it been found to be racist? Go into case studies/examples. How do ads use the info that they have found?

Final Self-Reflection

Annotated Bibliography

Wonkeryor, Edward Lama, et al. Dimensions of Racism in Advertising From Slavery to the Twenty-First Century. Lang, Peter New York, 2015.

This book details the history of race in advertising and critically analyzes how racial identities in mass marketing have formed and evolved. The book starts with the end of World War II as this is when American mass media began to view non-white people as wealthy enough to be advertised to. It also highlights that this is not enough – historically, minorities have not been viewed by the media as humans and that there is a continued argument for racially diverse people to be portrayed positively in the advertising industry. This book will be useful to my research because it provides historical context for advertising from the specific lens of racial diversity and thus will be helpful in understanding why advertisement lacks diversity.

 

Shankar, Shalini. Advertising Diversity: Ad Agencies and the Creation of Asian American Consumers. Duke University Press, 2015.

In this book Shankar does not focus solely on Asian American consumers or advertisement aimed towards Asian Americans as the book includes a significant amount of information on diversity as a whole. This book is useful in a different way than the other resources included because it relies on data from the U.S. Census, advertising agencies, market researchers, etc. to drive the narrative and offer tangible evidence for racism in advertising media. It also focuses on the development process of advertisements, including who is creating the advertisements and how that influences representation. It also includes targeted advertising, not just the lack of diversity in advertising in general.

 

Rodgers, Shelly, and Esther Thorson. Digital Advertising Theory and Research. Routledge, 2017.

This book details social media advertising as a whole. It starts by covering the shift from television and radio advertising to digital advertising and follows with what digital advertising entails. It also contains several chapters on the voices of digital and social advertising, which I can use to connect to race and diversity. With context from this resource, I can synthesize information about race and racism in traditional advertising and social media advertising as a whole in order to come to a conclusion about the nature of racism in social media advertising. This resource is not available in the Emory Library System, but is contributed to by Professors of Media, Communication, etc. from major universities across the nation.

 

Dayen, David. “Ban Targeted Advertising.” The New Republic, The New Republic, 10 Apr. 2018, newrepublic.com/article/147887/ban-targeted-advertising-facebook-google.

In this opinion piece hosted on The New Republic’s website, David Dayen criticizes the overall idea of targeted advertising, or the “surveillance economy,” and how it is negatively affecting consumers. Dayen argues that targeted advertising is not useful even for corporations, and only serves to discriminate against people. He argues that it goes against the people’s fundamental rights to privacy and destroys the positive fundamentals of consumerism. The New Republic is a journal of opinion that was founded in 1914. According to his personal website, David Dayen “is a contributing writer to Salon and The Intercept and a weekly columnist for the New Republic and the Fiscal Times.” He is also published by Vice, The Nation, the American Prospect, Naked Capitalism, and In These Times and has written a book titled “Chain of Title: How Three Ordinary Americans Uncovered Wall Street’s Great Foreclosure Fraud.”

 

Bagli, Charles V. “Facebook Vowed to End Discriminatory Housing Ads. Suit Says It Didn’t.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 27 Mar. 2018, http://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/27/nyregion/facebook-housing-ads-discrimination-lawsuit.html.

In this The New York Times article, Bagli describes a legal case against Facebook about discriminatory housing advertisements that might be against the Fair Housing Act. The article uses housing ads as a case study to exemplify how targeted advertising can be discriminatory against certain groups of people. Particularly in this case, companies chose not to show advertisements to single mothers, disabled veterans, people of color, etc. The article includes citations for two other articles on ProPublica that might also be useful in my research as they are case studies of similar cases that are particularly focused on people of color.

 

Extra Credit #1: Man Made at Oxford College

Last Wednesday, I went to Oxford College to watch T. Cooper’s Man Made as a part of their Southern Circuit Film Series. When I let my old Film and American Studies professors know that my friends and I would be back on campus to see the film, they invited us to have dinner with T. Cooper beforehand.The dinner was attended by the Oxford American Studies professor Dr. McGehee, the Women, Gender, & Sexuality Studies professor Dr. ___, Professor Cooper, and a few students. During the dinner, we spoke in depth about how Professor Cooper made the film with a low budget and limited cast, how the film is doing in the film circuits that it’s in, the corruption that pervades these film circuits, and the track of Professor Cooper’s professional life.

Man Made is a documentary about trans men body builders competing at a competition in Atlanta. Cooper filmed most of the sound and footage himself with a very limited and sporadic crew. The documentary itself was incredibly impactful – after watching it, I could hardly believe that it was a low-budget film. Cooper worked with an editor, but what struck me most was how well put-together the story was, even though Cooper let us know that he had to cut half of the men that he followed and interviewed. The piece was cut together beautifully to tell a great story. After the movie there was a brief talkback with Cooper where he answered questions about the production process, how he found the body builders in the film, his inspiration, his experience as a trans man telling the story of trans men, etc. Watching a movie explicitly about people celebrating themselves who normally are not allowed to was an amazing experience, and I will be telling everyone I know about this movie for a long time.

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