The Truth About the Faces in Your Facebook Ads
You've undoubtedly seen advertisements running down the right-hand side of your Facebook page (as in the example at left). Chances are some of them have promised you that "Hot singles are waiting for you!"
But is the hot girl winking at you from the ad an actual user of the site? Probably not.
Dating advertisements on Facebook often promise to connect you with good-looking singles; and as if to prove that they've got the goods, they feature photographs of fit, attractive people flashing a coy smile.
In a typical photo, the subject looks pretty casual, lounging in a T-shirt at home. In some instances they hold a camera out in front of them, as if they snapped the shot themselves.
In fact, most of these advertising photos look so unpolished that you'd swear they were actual Facebook profile pictures. So, where do these sexy coeds come from--Facebook, or elsewhere?
The Truth About Facebook Ad Photos
Apppearances notwithstanding, these advertisements are created and posted by third-party advertisers acting with Facebook's approval.
When creating a Facebook ad, outside advertisers customize its content to appeal to a specific target audience, thereby maximizing click-through rates (the ultimate measure of an ad's success). Thus, the advertisements you see differ from those seen by Facebook users who have identified different interests or who fall into different demographic categories.
My boss, a woman in her 50s, gets ads for wrinkle cream (much to her dismay), while a male coworker in his mid-30s sees ads for summer camps for his kids. I'm in my mid-20s, and I get ads for cupcake bakeries and astrology-based online dating services.
[What are the funniest or weirdest ads on your Facebook page? Tell us about your experiences in the Comments below.]
How Does It Work?
Let's say that a wedding photography company wants to post an advertisement on Facebook. The company may decide to home in on women between the ages of 24 and 35 who have a marital status of "engaged." If you fall into that target group, you'll get the ad.
To promote its business, the wedding photography company would love to use a picture of someone on your Facebook Friends list who is also engaged to be married. That way, you'll get the impression that your friend has used the service, and research indicates the obvious: Consumers are more likely to click through on an ad if they see a familiar face there.
Can the advertiser do this?
A Short History of Facebook Ads and Photos
In the early stages of ad targeting on Facebook, some third-party advertisers trolled the site's user accounts in search of profile pictures that would appeal to the person who saw them--the person the advertiser wanted to reach.
Once discovered, however, this practice caused an uproar amongst Facebook users--and rightly so, because the advertisers were violating Facebook's guidelines for third-party ads.
In July 2009, a man logged onto his Facebook account and saw an advertisement featuring a photo of his wife. Unfortunately, the ad was for a dating service, assuring him that "hot singles are waiting for you!" How and why did a married woman's photo end up on an ad for a dating service?
Facebook says that it removed the ad immediately because company policy does not permit third-party advertisers to use photos in this way. Sure enough, the company's advertising guidelines clearly state: "Unless authorized by us, your ads may not display user data--such as users' names or profile photos--whether that data was obtained from Facebook or otherwise."
Facebook then put an end to all advertisements that disregarded this policy, and it wrote a July 24, 2009 blog post to keep users in the loop about such unauthorized practices. According to the blog post:
"The advertisements that started these rumors were not from Facebook but placed within applications by third parties. Those ads violated our policies by misusing profile photos, and we already required the removal of those deceptive ads from third-party applications before this rumor began spreading...
"Along with removing ads, we've recently prohibited two entire advertising networks from providing services to applications on Facebook Platform because they were not compliant with our policies and failed to correct their practices."
Next: What Are Advertisers Allowed to Do?
What Are Advertisers Allowed to Do?
As stated in Facebook's advertising policy guidelines, the photos that Facebook advertisers use must be representative of the advertisement itself and must not be misleading or include unsubstantiated claims.
This policy protects Facebook users from false or otherwise deceptive advertising claims, and it clarifies to users that the images that appear in advertisements come from an outside source.
Facebook itself deploys user information only for its self-sponsored social ads--the sidebars on your home page that notify you of certain groups or interests that people on your Friends list participate in or share. Some of the ads inform you of a public event that some of your Facebook Friends are attending; others let you know that some of your Friends have "Liked" a particular page recently.
On its advertising policy page, Facebook describes the function of social ads in greater detail: "For example, if you connect with your favorite band's page, we may display your name and profile photo next to an advertisement for that page that is displayed to your friends. We only share the personally identifiable information visible in the social ad with the friend who can see the ad."
Many Facebook third-party advertisers have managed to run successful ad campaigns without needing to expose Facebook users' information. Online dating site AstrologyDating.com has seen an astounding conversion rate to its site of 15 to 20 percent since starting a Facebook ad campaign in November 2009.
AstrologyDating.com's advertising images feature attractive people of all ages, beginning with 20-somethings in relaxed at-home settings, which AstrologyDating.com founder Hilary Young says is a strategy designed to appeal to average Facebook users whose marital status is "single."
These images reflect the type of user that the site is trying to attract. "We look for people that you would actually go out with--not necessarily people with supermodel looks, but someone who is attractive, smiling, relaxed, and in more natural settings," Young says.
For the moment, AstrologyDating.com is using stock photos in its Facebook ads--which means that you'll have a hard time getting hooked up with one of the bombshells who appear in ads promoting the service. Young says that her company changes the images often to keep its Facebook ads looking fresh and new.
Facebook encourages you to feel free to report any ad that you suspect may be violating Facebook's advertising policy or that could jeopardize your user experience. This includes ads on the site itself as well as in applications or games like Farmville.
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