Are Your Ads Racially Profiling You?

This article was written as a part of a final project for the Digital Media and Culture course at Emory University.

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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