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Fat? Stinky? Facebook ads hit where it hurts

Social networking site's ads are targeted to your interests -- and your psychological soft spots.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

My Facebook page called me fat.

Maybe it's my age, my sex or the fact that it knew I was engaged, but the site decided I was a gal who needed to drop a few pounds. And it wasn't shy about its tactics.

This was not a close friend taking me aside, telling me in gentle tones that she'd noticed I'd put on some weight and was there anything going on in my personal life that I needed to talk about?

Oh, no. Every time I logged in to my home page, Facebook's ads screamed at me with all the subtlety of a drill sergeant: "MUFFIN TOP." This particular ad had a picture of someone with said affliction. For those blissfully unacquainted with the slur, it's when a woman wears too-tight jeans and a roll of flab hangs over her waistband.

I posted a status update that said, "Rachel doesn't appreciate her Facebook page telling her that she has a muffin top."

Facebook targets its advertising to users based on the information in their profiles. This is not a new concept, of course. Kids usually see toy ads while they watch Nickelodeon, and women get ads for birth control pills as they watch Lifetime.

But Facebook's data miners know much more about us because we tell them a whole lot more. Facebook knows my birthday, my relationship status and which book I'm reading, among other personal tidbits. The site started turning this information into dollar signs last November with the launch of Facebook Ads, which targets users' presumed areas of interest (or psychological soft spots).

Basically, the subliminal goal of product advertising is to make you feel inadequate and ashamed, because you're not perfect. Your teeth are yellow. Your armpits stink. You're fat. And hairy.

The targeting technology itself will be familiar to users of Google's Gmail, which generates ads based on what its users type in the body of an e-mail. TiVo and Netflix both suggest programming based on what you've been watching. (Remember the "My TiVo Thinks I'm Gay" episode of "The King of Queens"?)

Facebook spokesman Matt Hicks summed up the appeal to advertisers thus:

"If you're a wedding photographer, do you want to waste your money advertising to a general audience? Or do you want to reach those that are engaged?"

Provoking the bully
After my quaint status update about the muffin top ad, Facebook got even more vicious, like a schoolyard bully provoked by my initial reaction. With the knowledge that I was engaged to be married, the site splashed an ad across the left side of the screen playing into a presumed vulnerability. Do you want to be a fat bride? You'd better go to such-and-such Web site to learn how to lose weight before the big day.

I fought back harder. I clicked a little blue link that said "Report" and filled out a form.

A drop-down menu gave choices: Was the ad "misleading, offensive or pornographic?" I chose offensive. Facebook thanked me for the feedback and said it would take appropriate action, though I shouldn't expect any notification about this action.

Nothing changed. Facebook continued its onslaught of muffin-top and fat-bride taunts. I averted my eyes and tried to remember that saying about rubber and glue. I didn't spiral into a body-image crisis, nor did I start to diet. But there's got to be some kind of psychological toll wrought by so many weight-loss images each week.

I decided to investigate further, and obtained a document for advertisers called "Common Ad Mistakes." In it, I found this nugget:

"Text may not single out an individual or degrade the viewer of the ad." It even gave an example of a diet ad that uses unacceptable language: "You're Fat. You don't have to be."

Changes afoot
The muffin top ad is no more; whether the advertisers stopped using it by choice or by force, Facebook spokesman Hicks wouldn't say. There are other changes afoot at the site. Last month, it beefed up its advertising guidelines, in part to address the diet ads. Any ads that refer to health or medical conditions can go only to users 18 or older, and they must "present information without portraying any conditions or body types in a negative light."

Also in July, Facebook launched its new interface, which includes "thumbs up/thumbs down" buttons beneath ads so users can receive the ones that are more relevant to them.

I assumed that the diet ads would subside after I changed my relationship status from "engaged" to "married" in May. They did. I now receive these:

"Trying to get pregnant? Visit our site now. We're a national network of fertility specialists treating male and female infertility."

Thanks, Facebook, for calling me barren.