Targeted advertisements and the strange coincidences

Screen shot of a targeted advertisement

So it was an average Saturday, my wife and I were off doing different errands and various tasks at home. My wife text me, asking the following, 

“Hey, I am at Staples, do you need anything.” 

I thought about her question for a moment and could not think of anything I needed, so I quickly responded, 

“No, I don’t need anything, thank you.” 

Now let me set some key points here. The word “Staples” has not been a word I have used or thought about in a long time. The last time the name “Staples” crossed my mind, has been spoken, or I have used in an Internet search was back in the summer when I had to pick up some school supplies for the kids.

I use Facebook, Instagram, and other social media tools to stay connected with various friends and social groups that I am part of in my Peloton fitness journey and other technical groups. I would say, on average, I check the various groups a few times a day to see the latest topics and conversations that are happening. 

I casually pay attention to the various advertisements that get injected into the conversation threads and sections within the different social media apps. There are some interesting products at times, and on occasion, I will click on an advertisement to learn more about the product. For the most part, the ads are various products that have some connection to things I like and am interested in. Receiving these ads make sense as its easy to just look at the groups and other demographics within my social media profile to target me. 

What is interesting is the increase in the number of times I am finding advertisements that come up that are linked to products or services that are totally unrelated to anything I am generally interested in or would fit my standard profile. 

In some situations, they have come through searching or browsing various websites. Facebook has this technology called the Facebook pixel that helps track your movements around the Internet to deliver targeted ads. So the random searches I do for work or looking up things for the kids can easily explain why I may get advertisements for random things when I had just searched for some random product or service.

What is interesting is how am I getting targeted for advertisments that are outside of my likes and interests. These are topics I have never searched on or are connected to me in any technology platform. Now it could be that Facebook has some exceptional Machine Learning-based technologies that can somehow predict in new and unique ways. If that is the case, it would be great if they would provide some details that would let people feel less concerned. Right now this has the potential to erode trust in Facebook.

The Staples issue I described is not an isolated incident; this has continued to be a repetitive pattern in so many different scenarios. There are many others who have recognized strange and abnormal patterns that they simply can’t explain. This has reached a point where many feel like Facebook is listening to the microphone or utilizing GPS and tracking our every movement combined with our social networks. 

For example, let’s take my “Staples” experience this weekend. 

  • Here is a company I have not searched, interacted with, or gone to their website in a long time.  
    • Did the app hear me say, “What is she doing at Staples?” when I got the text message from my wife? 
    • Did they find a way to read my text messages and determine that my wife was at Staples via GPS to immediately target me with Staples ads to get me to tell her to pick something up? 
    • Did they find a way to use the GPS location of my wife combined with our social media relationship status to detect that she was at Staples and then present an ad to me in an effort to increase the transaction value? 

I think it’s important for Facebook to share some details on how they are doing ad targeting. Right now, without some understanding of these technologies, there is a lot of nervousness and fear out there. Based on the patterns, it can feel like they are listening or tracking our locations through our mobile phones without our consent.

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