Ad buyers see gaps in Facebook’s new ad-transparency tool

Facebook’s latest transparency effort lets Facebook users see more information about how advertisers are reaching them. But while the update is a step toward addressing privacy concerns and instituting self-regulation, advertisers say it will do little to alter behavior — and it’s still lacking details.

This week, Facebook introduced changes to its “Why am I seeing this ad?” tool, where users can now see what information has been uploaded on them (email address, phone numbers, etc.) and how it got in the advertisers’ possession. The tool could show what third-party data brokers (LiveRamp, Oracle Data Cloud, etc.) or agencies provided the data for the targeted ads, while the dropdown menu can show more detailed targeting information, such as particular interests.

Here’s the all-encompassing slide from the scenario deck Facebook provided to agencies:

All scenarios for Facebook’s “Why am I seeing this ad?” tool

This change is a dramatic update from the original version of “Why I am seeing this ad?” tool, launched in 2014, which would only list broad categories such as the brand “wants to reach women ages 18 and older in the United States” or the user is an “existing customer.” As the ad industry well knows, targeting — especially on platforms like Facebook — is much more sophisticated than that. In fact, Facebook thrives from this personalized targeting options. Indeed, Facebook executives Sheryl Sandberg and Carolyn Everson touted how targeting can be used for good — not evil — at Cannes this year. The existence of this tool aligns with that positive spin.

“The positive is that Facebook is essentially saying ‘we didn’t collect this, it came from someone else,’ which will hopefully ease the sense that Facebook the company is out to collect all of your information. With this roll-out, users will soon see that this practice is not limited to Facebook. It’s happening with apps, at the grocery store, newsletters and more,” said Joe Leverone, a programmatic media buyer in North Carolina.

The update will reveal to consumers, who choose to click the button, what brand can rely on first-party data — such as direct-to-consumer brands — versus third-party data, such as consumer packaged goods and auto companies that are further away from their consumer.

“While an industry we’re aware of the process, it brought to light that the advertiser may have questions come there in on who are these associated companies. I don’t think the average consumer knows what LiveRamp or Oracle is, going in this direction they’re setting a standard, which I hope they will succeed on educating more folks in all of the different players,” said Kieley Taylor, global head of social at GroupM.

However, Facebook’s tool is still not all-encompassing to its ad targeting process. Taylor said she was surprised the tool was not forthcoming about pixel-based targeting, which she said is a much larger portion of the way ads are targeted on Facebook. For example, the tool would not necessarily reveal someone is being targeted because of a pixel embedded on an advertiser’s website or when someone is tracked from SDK on their mobile device. A Facebook spokesperson disputed this claim, adding that the new version will include information about Facebook pixel when it rolls out to everyone in the coming months as seen in this video.

Of course, it’s doubtful if Facebook users will even bother to click on the tool in the first place. Veronica Ripson, a digital marketing consultant, said most people in her digital marketing and data classes didn’t know the Facebook ads preferences tools existed before they talked about it.

“While I would love to think this is the tipping point for consumers to truly understand the power of their data, I’m not sure it’s going to do much to alter advertiser behavior past giving some of us a fun tool to play with and perhaps offer some competitive insights,” Ripson said.

Taylor said her team is anticipating the release of Facebook’s “clear history” tool. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the feature in 2018 as a way for people to delete information the social network collects from websites and apps. The tool’s release has been repeatedly delayed. Taylor said she had not heard about the timing of the launch but had recently learned “history” was being replaced with “off-Facebook activity,” as not to conflate it with activity on the platform itself.

“I’ve been pretty clear there’s a consumer expectation and standard with clear history and what they were doing wasn’t in line with that,” Taylor said.

This story was updated with a statement from Facebook.

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