Home PublicationsCommentary Oops, the Groups Pushing to Ban Targeted Ads Use Targeted Ads Themselves

Oops, the Groups Pushing to Ban Targeted Ads Use Targeted Ads Themselves

by Daniel Castro
Hand holding mobile devices with Facebook app open

This article is part of a three-part series investigating the role of “privacy capitalism” in shaping the EU proposal to ban targeted advertising: 

European Digital Rights (EDRi), one of the primary advocates of a ban on targeted ads, recently suggested it was hypocritical for the tech companies that support targeted ads to use contextual ads. It is worth reiterating that those who are opposing proposals to ban targeted ads are not against contextual advertising. Contextual ads have significant value, such as for search or when a publication reaches a target demographic, and if there was a call to ban contextual advertising, most of these same groups opposing a ban on targeted ads would also oppose a ban on contextual ads. However, contextual ads are not interchangeable with targeted ads, and so a ban on targeted ads would have a detrimental impact on ad effectiveness, thus decreasing the available ad revenue to support free online apps and services.

On the other hand, those who want to ban targeted ads have been unequivocal that they believe personalized advertising is the absolute worst. While they provide no evidence for their claims, in their own words, it is “invasive,” “threatens our democracy,” and ultimately will “harm people.” Which raises an important question: why are so many of these detractors using targeted advertising?

As shown in the table below, more than 20 percent of the civil society organizations that have joined the “Tracking-Free Ads Coalition” have used targeted advertising on Facebook since 2019. These organizations even include members of EDRi, such as Panoptykon, that have vocally championed a ban on targeted ads.

For example, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) has run dozens of targeted ad campaigns on Facebook for the past two years. How ironic that an organization that says targeted ads should be banned and do not work, apparently thinks nothing of spending hundreds of euros on these exact types of ads on Facebook. Moreover, in what might possible be the most absurd privacy policy ever written, ICCL attempts to justify its Facebook ads by explaining that the “legal basis of processing data” is “Our interest in defending people’s rights over the long term, which is balanced with everybody’s interest in gaining protection from online surveillance, and against the risk of Facebook’s data processing.” (ICCL’s last campaign was in September 2021, so perhaps it finally realized paying for Facebook ads was not a good look.)

Or consider the MEPs who have signed on to the “Tracking-Free Ads Coalition.” As shown in the table below, over two-thirds of the MEPs, 17 in total, have used Facebook ads since 2019. Moreover, five MEPs appear to be still using Facebook ads as of November 2021. Together, they spent thousands of euros running hundreds of campaigns over the last two years on targeted ads.

Even DuckDuckGo has paid to place some targeted ads on Facebook, not only for corporate marketing, but also to advocate for specific policy positions in privacy laws.

Why would some many of these various organizations, who publicly profess to believe that targeted ads are both evil and inefficient, spend so much time and money placing their own targeted ads? The answer seems obvious—targeted ads are safe, efficient, and effective. And hopefully, if they cannot even convince themselves that they should stop using targeted ads, they won’t be able to convince anyone else.

Image credit: Solen Feyissa

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