Friday, 21 November 2008


I've noticed a few different posts here and there recently (in particular, one at feminist website feministing and another at comics & feminism blog Occasional Superheroine) dealing with the same topic: the bizarre nature of the highly gendered ads on facebook.

Now, the idea of using the internet to gather personal information about potential consumers so that you can then market stuff to them more effectively is nothing new (once again, I'm going to heavily suggest the (sadly out of print) novel Nearly Roadkill, which deals with a lot of these themes) and its not just an internet-only phenomenon, either. Flicking through magazines or switching between channels also gives an insight into this sort of thing, and for the most part, it's simply sensible, intelligent marketing. Countdown is - supposedly - primarily watched by older viewers, so they advertise things that are aimed at primarily an older audience.

However, when it comes to advertising, one of the clearest divides is between items aimed at one gender or another, and frankly, often this extremely gendered advertising strays into just transparent sexism, or simple idiocy and naivety. Sarah Haskins has a great series of videos over at Current.TV dealing with exactly this, in particular the absurd and frequently patronising  undertones of adverts in the U.S. that are aimed at women.

Facebook though really has taken this to an extreme, as their adverts, based on the information provided by users, often seem to only look for one particular criteria: "has vagina: yes or no".* And, as the commenters I mentioned above have discovered to their dismay, it seems that as far as facebook's advertising clients are concerned, women are primarily concerned with only one thing: losing weight. Now, I really can't add to much to the Feministing post linked above, which deals with just how bizarre this is, and how it's a sign of an all-pervading attack on women's self-esteem and body image, but I just wanted to add a couple of thoughts.

What first struck me about this issue was how, if no women had brought it up, I genuinely might never have noticed it. Facebook advertising isn't like television advertising, where one could easily not fit into the desired demographic that the advertisements around a particular show are clearly aimed at (doesn't Countdown also attract a large student audience, for example? And what about the straight men who watch Sex and the City? I know that they exist), and therefore might be easily exposed to "other people's" adverts. With facebook, it selects the advertisements to show you based on something a little bit more sophisticated than "watches [x programme] therefore must fit into [demographic y]" as you've given the damned thing your details. I identify as male on facebook and therefore have never once seen the ads in question when logging in to check my account. I don't make a habit of looking over people's shoulders when they check their accounts, either. So really, this was an essentially invisible to problem to me until someone else brought it up (talk about invisible male privelege). I've noticed trends in the adverts that I've been exposed to myself, but I was obviously not really paying them much attention, as it took me a while to realise that they must be tailored to my demographic. Ironically enough, it was the homogenous nature of the ads that I received that at first led me to believe that they must in fact be just generic ads that everyone gets.

When I finally did start to notice the ads, I realised that with me, they all seem to focus on two things: a) that I am male, and b) that I am single. Hence, I've been bombarded with guilt-tripping, self-esteem attacking ads along the lines of "[my age] and still single?" (said, no doubt, in a voice equal parts surprise and pity, or like a sterotypical Jewish mother).

One could of course always simply not tell Facebook one's gender. It's not like that isn't a viable option (thankfully). However, I really am split on this one. On the one hand, I encourage those who refuse the gender binary, but on the other hand, I can't help but feel that this sort of action is just a kind of closeting oneself rather than addressing the real problem. Idiocy in incredibly and ludicrously gendered advertising isn't going to go away just because a bunch of people decide not to look at it (despite what a certain Treehouse of Horror might tell you), at least, not unless everyone looks away, and I can't see that happening anytime soon. 

So yeah, facebook advertisers assuming that all women need to be told how to diet. I realise can't argue with Valerie D'Orazio's conclusion on this one.

*Thanks to Cruella, via Feministing, for that one.

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