Ask LH: How Does Facebook Target Ads At Me So Precisely?

Hi Lifehacker, I was on Facebook last week and saw a lot of ads for T-shirts for Richmond's AFL team on sale at Target. I've never liked either Target or Richmond on Facebook (though I am a Richmond supporter). How did Facebook know that would be of interest to me? Thanks, Tiger Landed

Picture: Getty Images

Dear TL,

Facebook's key pitch to advertisers is that it can help direct ads to people who are interested in a given area. Many Facebook users are aware that "liking" something can have an impact on the advertisements they see, and that their own names can show up as "liking" a company if it does advertise on there: ("John Smith and Jenny Jones like this").

However, direct "likes" aren't the only way that Facebook decides who might be a "relevant" audience for an advertiser. It can also examine every status update you've posted and every picture you've uploaded. So if you've ever mentioned Richmond in a post and Target starts running a campaign based on AFL teams, chances are you'll see an ad customised to that team. If you had mentioned Collingwood, the team would be different. If your location is specified as Sydney, then the odds are good you'd have been bombarded with AFL T-shirt offers instead.

This process is far from perfect — I still see a lot of ads for irrelevant rubbish on my Facebook page, and it's a rare day indeed when I click on one. But this process of "personalising" advertising — and selling access to you — is how Facebook makes its money. When it does it well, you see ads you actually find interesting. When it does it badly, you hear about one weird trick to lose weight. That's life online.

Cheers Lifehacker

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    Consider yourself lucky - Facebook has no freakin' idea what it's doing, and targets me with a plethora of useless crap.

    Facebook seems to think that just because I'm female I must want to lose weight and/or have a baby. And no, I most certainly don't post photos or statuses that are even remotely related to either of these things.

    Thank goodness for AdBlock.

      I was about to say the same thing. The year my relationship status was set to Engaged was wall-to-wall wedding planning junk, too, but I'm pretty sure my now-husband wasn't getting the same ads.

    I also believe that they can use those "Log in with / Like on Facebook" buttons to track you across the web. By knowing on which sites the buttons are placed, you can put 2 and 2 together and derive what people like. If you've read a few articles about Richmond or visited a Richmond related site, Facebook might know.

    Other things can be derived. They may be able to say "There's a Target in your home town and recently you've looked at pages about clothing. Let's suggest a Target ad".

    The best way to stop all of this is to install AdBlock, Disconnect and log out of Facebook when you're done using it. AdBlock so you don't see the ads and Disconnect to stop Facebook's buttons from loading (plus a few other privacy tweaks). I don't think logging out of Facebook makes a difference (see this article from 2013: but it's still good advice.

      You are correct - the Like button embedded in a web page pulls a bunch of code from facebook itself and can then read the cookies for Bam, it knows who you are, and what webpage you are on

    fanboy TPL blocks most of the ads, so I only see one for commbank and one for bankwest, they don't seem to change much. I did used to mark most ads as offensive back in the day also, until facebook stopped advertising to me at the time.

    Facebook knows I'm single, tries to make me feel bad about it and thinks it can be my wingman.

    I use both AdBlock and Disconnect. AdBlock does what it says it does: blocks ads from appearing. You can manually block ads too, which is great for getting the occasional Facebook ad that slips through. Disconnect compliments this by blocking tracking services on other websites. If a website has a Facebook "Like" button, and you're logged into Facebook in another tab, they can see what websites you're checking out. Disconnect stops this from happening. It also blocks all other tracking services, such as those from Google (which is just as big on knowing everything about you in order to better sell you to advertisers).

    Both are free and available on the Chrome webstore, as well as Firefox.

    I work in advertising so know a bit about this.

    If you visit the Richmond website, potentially they've cookied you there (whether you've logged in via Facebook or not) and then re-targeted you at a later time on Facebook. As soon as you visit Facebook, they can match the cookie on your PC to your Facebook ID and then continue to target you on your mobile.

    Another possibility is that at some point you've given your email address to Richmond (ever signed up for a newsletter?). Assuming their privacy policy allows, Richmond could have then shared a database of email addresses with Facebook, who then match this to logins and targets advertising accordingly.

    For the women who have commented that Facebook thinks that, because they're female, they must be interested in babies, diets, weddings, etc, it's not Facebook that thinks this, but the advertisers who use the platform and determine the target audiences for ad campaigns. There's a reason why you've been identified and, while you personally might not be interested, statistically your cohorts are more likely to be in market for those products.

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