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Is Demographic Based Targeting Discrimination?

07 Feb 2017

Phil Mellor

According to this BBC article Suzanne-Juliette Mobley of Northern California accuses 9,999 Facebook advertisers of using the Facebook Audience tool to “discriminate based on race, gender, national origin and other protected attributes”

This leads me (online marketer and programmer with no legal training whatsoever) to wonder if demographic based targeting could be discriminatory and why some people might perceive it to be.

Personally, I believe it’s wrong to say “we’re all the same” – I think it’s misleading. Aside from the externally visible attributes which we use to define ourselves, there are also many factors in our personality that differ wildly from one person to the next. It is however possible to predict human behaviour in aggregate e.g. if you study enough people you can predict how a wider population is likely to react.

Market research in an interesting field – essentially researchers take products and services to a cross section of broadly defined groups, show them marketing materials and score them. This gives an indication as to how (in aggregate) sub-groups of a population is likely to react to advertisements – the purpose of which is to ensure advertisers money is spent efficiently by seeking the outlets which contain those segments reacting favourably.

Sure, an advertiser could blindly buy advertising space in any and every media outlet they can find – but is it not logical to assume that unless they have both a product and a message that is attractive to all societies various segments some of the ad spend is going to be totally wasted?

If you logically extend that argument of “some scatter-gun media placements will return zero sales” we come to the point where it’s desirable to quantify the point at which a media buy becomes profitable. If marketers can predict which groups are [broadly] interested in a product and which groups are [broadly] not then an advertiser can be quite specific about which groups to target and how much to spend on advertising to each group.

But is it Discrimination?

I don’t believe so – I think the word is which could be more accurately employed is “discerning”.

In the same way that a private individual can make a choice to buy product A over product B because it suits their individual needs, then a media buy must be comparable – its criteria usually being as simple as return on investment being within a pre-determined range.

When we come to talking about “audience affinity” (as Facebook terms its demographic tools) is not exclusionary – its targeted ad buying. An advertiser will know broadly what its established customer base is and will continue to push advertising to those groups.

If a member of non-targeted group directly approaches the advertiser and wants to buy something the advertiser is unlikely to decline because a) businesses need to make money and b) legislation is in place to prevent such morally reprehensible discrimination.

In Conclusion

I cannot see Ms Mobley’s lawsuit being successful – it fundamentally upsets the “free” in free market economy. If an advertiser can’t get some sense of an ROI before committing to an ad buy then the global economy will be compelled to change – I don’t see that happening any time soon, do you?