Facebook ads are eerily on point most of the time. All you have to do is whisper a word like 'cake,' and your feed will instantly be bombarded with cake recipes and stores where you can buy your baking ingredients. Ok, it may not be because of a whisper, but a Google search or a cooking app does the trick.
When matters aren't so personal, these ads aren't such a headache. However, as one woman recently found out, when very personal data such as your period dates are shared via an app, Facebook ads become intolerable.
What's the story?
Daily Mirror journalist, Talia Shadwell, uses an app that helps track her period. A lot of women do this for many reasons, and it helps women plan parts of their lives accordingly.
However, when Shadwell started seeing only pregnancy and baby-related ads on her Facebook feed, she started wondering what was going on. It was all the more surprising as Shadwell knew she wasn't pregnant, and nor does she have any children.
It so happens that Shadwell's period tracking app was selling her data to big tech companies.
Shadwell figured this out when she remembered to check her period tracking app and noticed she'd forgotten to input her last period's dates. Warning comments about her period being late were flashing from the app.
By putting two and two together, Shadwell realized the app's data had informed the tech companies. They then created algorithms believing she must be pregnant and started offering her 'sage' advice and options for her unborn child. Creepily, as soon as Shadwell corrected and inputted her cycle information, the ads stopped.
Shadwell took to Twitter to share her story with her posts going viral in no time. Many women and men have responded, echoing her concerns.
What's so unsettling about this?
To begin with, this information is private and should only be shared when and if the woman in question wishes to disclose it.
Secondly, these algorithms may be smart and may fine-tune ads to the latest Google search. However, they are not sympathetic or empathetic. Many women responded to Shadwell's tweets and mentioned how, after their miscarriages, they still received baby-focused ads, cutting into their pain even more.
Others who had recently given birth started seeing ads about losing weight and which workouts to do to tone their stomach back. Not very helpful when you may be feeling a little low post-baby.
The list goes on. Here are the insightful and interesting tweets Shadwell posted:
I don’t have children. But suddenly and out of nowhere sponsored ads for baby clothing, children’s books and pregnancy heath were cluttering my newsfeeds— Talia Shadwell (@TaliaShadwell) November 3, 2019
I also have some friends with babies. I wondered if it could be because I frequently ‘liked’ posts featuring other people’s kids— Talia Shadwell (@TaliaShadwell) November 3, 2019
Like many women I know - I use a period tracker app. I opened it today and found I hadn’t logged last month’s cycle - it flashed a warning that I was very ‘late’— Talia Shadwell (@TaliaShadwell) November 3, 2019
I corrected my cycle in the tracker app and just like that - the ads have stopped— Talia Shadwell (@TaliaShadwell) November 3, 2019
The second is less creepy and more telling about who designs this technology- it assumed, perhaps based on my age and the fact I used a fertility tracker, that I would be happy about being pregnant right now so began sending cheery mummy ads— Talia Shadwell (@TaliaShadwell) November 3, 2019
Plenty has been written about the strange assumptions of these apps - often pink themed, and designed with the assumption women use them to get pregnant - not avoid it. We are used to having personal data monetised - but this is the most striking example I’ve experienced to date— Talia Shadwell (@TaliaShadwell) November 3, 2019
Hello, thanks for the insightful responses. I’m getting quite a few ‘just use a paper calendar’ comments. Please consider many women using apps have complex, personal health reasons for tracking. A paper calendar can’t offer analysis - apps can save time, money & embarrassment— Talia Shadwell (@TaliaShadwell) November 3, 2019
Seeing as this seems to have struck a chord with so many people, I've written about this for the @DailyMirror. Sadly I didn't go with the headline suggested by my colleague @MirrorMilo : 'Mark Zuckerberg stay out of my uterus' https://t.co/TSuZCqB5CT— Talia Shadwell (@TaliaShadwell) November 4, 2019
Here are some responses:
This is creepy as hell. Happened to be too except that I had been pregnant and miscarried....the new mum / baby messages were pretty hard to stomach around the time that my due date should have been.— 🌈 Spelled with a See (@SeeMack_ie) November 3, 2019
Some ads really have the opposite effect:
I had my kids pretty young, but about 10 years ago many of my cohort were starting families. Cue lots of nappy and baby formula ads on Facebook. After a few months of killing them as „not relevant“, I suddenly started getting ads for infertility treatments and cosmetic surgery…— Lucy_Who 🇪🇺🇩🇪🇬🇧 (@Lucy_T) November 3, 2019
With men also agreeing about how ridiculous these algorithms can be:
I remember reading about women with store loyalty cards getting targeted for baby promotions when they had stopped buying sanitary items. Assumption was pregnancy, but illness or menopause (or getting the items elsewhere) could have just as easily been the reason.— Matthew Smith (@indigojo_uk) November 3, 2019