The Truth About the Faces in Your Facebook Ads

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A third-party ad on Facebook
A third-party Facebook ad promoting an online dating service.
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."

This Facebook page outlines the service's policy regarding the use of personal photos in Facebook ads. Presumably, the pole dancer in the ad in the upper right corner is not someone's Facebook Friend.
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?

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