If you’re a gay Facebook user, you may have noticed that the ads that appear on your page are particularly tailored to your preferences. Just as if you are a guy who put “surfing” in your “likes,” an ad for a local surf shop might show up, putting “men” in your “interested in” category might make an ad for a gay bar appear. Which makes sense. But that’s not the only kind of targeted ad that you may have noticed; what about those ads for the handsome male real-estate agents? The discount offers for head shots or Broadway show tickets? The little shills for light beer? “Alarmingly, we found ads where the ad text was completely neutral to sexual preference (e.g. for a nursing degree in a medical college in Florida) that was targeted exclusively to gay men,” noted a recent study of online ads, which revealed that exactly half of the ads shown exclusively to gay men on Facebook don’t explicitly include the word “gay.” “The danger with such ads, unlike the gay-bar ad where the target demographic is blatantly obvious, is that the user reading the ad text would have no idea that by clicking it he would reveal to the advertiser both his sexual-preference and a unique identiﬁer (cookie, IP address, or email address if he signs up on the advertiser’s site).”
As Gawker points out, if you clicked on that nursing-school ad, now your future educators know you are gay. Granted, you’ve put that preference on your Facebook page, so you are comfortable with a certain number of people knowing you are gay. But no matter what your privacy level, Facebook can use that information to sell targeted ads. Having only a select group of friends know your sexual preference is a bit different from having a potential future employer, educator, or provider of services know.
There is, of course, a flip side to this: Gay users can now know what products advertisers think of as “their” products. For example, the Honda hybrid CR-Z: Based on the number of times Intel Chris has seen that on his Facebook page, we can pretty much assume that the car giant thinks of this as their “gay model.”