The most useful targeted social media ads are the ones based on geography, but the novelty items never stop.
Targeted ads have a bad reputation.
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It’s creepy when a social-media site highlights the fact that your every move has been tracked as you’ve surfed the internet or wandered around town with GPS enabled — or even just talked to your friends within earshot of your phone (apparently not true, but some of us will never be convinced). But studies show most people prefer a personalized online experience provided there’s transparency about where the data comes from — along with the ability to control it. And now I can see why.
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For years, with all targeted ads turned off, I saw notices for jewelry, face cream and that somehow still-elusive secret for removing belly fat — the most generic set of ads based solely on age and gender. Not only were they dull, I found them vaguely insulting. But with targeting enabled, I started getting appealing ads for nice sweaters, vintage-style dresses and other accessories similar to items I’d perused online. I discovered interesting companies I didn’t already know about and I felt like I was making the algorithm work for me.
But, of course, it was working on me, too. During the COVID-19 pandemic, I started clicking on these ads regularly. For a while, anything I purchased that I didn’t really need originated via a Facebook ad. A fancy purse. My heatless curling tool. It was an easier route to retail therapy when going to the mall wasn’t practical. Not only that, but the promise of a package coming to the door made all the lockdown sameness a little more endurable.
And the more I clicked, the better the ads seemed to get — to the detriment of my credit-card balance. Sometimes the items were a little cutesy, or kitschy, depending who you ask (see: my husband, our household’s pre-eminent — and probably very necessary — arbiter of taste). Yet I couldn’t resist buying a frilly, cable-knit vest with rows of mini pom-poms or a pair of dangly earrings that looked like real cherries. I know I’m not alone in my susceptibility: at least two friends have clicked through on Instagram ads to purchase Positive Potatoes — little crocheted spuds with sweet faces holding motivational sayings.
There’s a fine line between niche and nonsense. Some of my targeted ads have been absolutely bonkers: a pair of eerily realistic silicone hands. Bright orange Crocs with the word “Carrots” printed on the side … for passionate veggie fans? Matching dog and owner sweaters … OK, fine, yes: I clicked on that one.
Targeted or not, social media hosts plenty of ads from questionable sellers. A friend ordered a beautiful linen dress that turned out not to be linen nor even remotely resemble the photos, an all too common complaint with impulse purchases. It pays to take the time to research any product and company you’re not familiar with and look carefully at any negative reviews.
Another irritant is suddenly seeing ads for an item you’ve already purchased. But you can stop this by clicking on the options just above the ad itself. The controls on Facebook advertisements are powerful and worth using, especially if you find the ads annoying or too alluring.
For more customization, click on Settings, and look under Permissions for Ad Preferences. From there you can manage the data used to show you ads as well as hide specific advertisers. You can also select Ad Topics to check out the total list of keywords that your displayed ads are based on. Mine went on for a boggling 46 screens and, except for a few oddities like Golf, Dressage and WWE thrown in, mostly made sense: terms like Retro, Vintage, Housewares, Indie Rock, Fashion, Montreal.
For me, the most useful targeted social media ads are the ones based on geography. Thanks to location-based marketing, I discovered a sewing business in Montreal that upcycles ’80s bedsheets and retro T-shirts into cute dresses. I’ve found out about concerts and comedy shows I was interested in attending. I perused the latest offerings from local designer Katrin Leblond, got info about shows at the Centaur Theatre and learned about a promotion at new music bookstore Librairie Résonance. Before the holidays, I was alerted to some family-oriented events happening at the Old Port.
But the novelty items haven’t stopped. I recently got an ad for a Kit-Cat Klock, a classic wall clock in the shape of a cartoon cat with eyes and tail that move back and forth — an item I’ve wanted since I was a kid. Finally, I thought, all that clicking was worth it, the algorithm really understands me. I sent the link to my husband as a birthday hint.
He wrote back, “Um, no.”
Saleema Nawaz’s latest book is Songs for the End of the World. Visit her website, saleemanawaz.com.
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