Facebook Is Betting That Users Secretly Like Targeted Advertising

Apple’s new privacy measures will test the theory that underlies Facebook’s business model

Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Facebook recently launched an ad campaign to defend personalized advertising against Apple’s new privacy measures. The campaign, called “Good Ideas Deserve to Be Found,” touts targeted ads as a boon for small businesses. Here’s one of the ads, which I found amusing, if perhaps not exactly in the way that Facebook intended.

The ad push comes ahead of a change in Apple’s policies that could dramatically affect Facebook and other app makers’ ability to track iOS users for advertising purposes. Starting this spring, iPhone users will see a pop-up when they open an app that tracks them, giving them the option to opt out. Previously, that option was buried in settings panels that few users ever open; now, it will be unmissable.

Apple CEO Tim Cook tweeted a screenshot in December of what its new privacy iOS pop-up notices will look like. Screenshot courtesy of the author

Facebook and the makers of other data-hungry mobile apps are afraid that many people — perhaps even most people — will opt out. Hence the ad campaign, which comes after Facebook has already run full-page newspaper ads decrying the changes and has reportedly been eyeing an antitrust lawsuit.

Facebook’s desperation is understandable: Tracking iPhone users is a huge part of its business. And the company clearly believes it has a case worth making here. Facebook is right that Apple often wields its unilateral control over the world’s most lucrative mobile computing platform to undercut rivals, which is a real antitrust problem. It’s also right that lots of small businesses benefit from advertising on Facebook, which allows them to reach niches of potential customers that would otherwise be hard to isolate.

But can Facebook really convince users that they should want the company tracking their every online move? That seems like an uphill battle at best.

Facebook’s argument is that its users actually benefit from personalized advertising, whether they realize it or not. That is, as long as they’re going to be shown ads, they’d prefer to see ads that are relevant to their life and interests. (Mark Zuckerberg testified to Congress in 2018 that while users have “some discomfort” with Facebook’s use of their information, “the overwhelming feedback that we get from our community is that people would rather have us show relevant content there than not.”) The company also no doubt has copious data showing that personalized ads are more effective and produce more engagement, which a certain type of economist would say equates to a “revealed preference” for targeted ads.

The problem for Facebook, however, is that users’ online behaviors may not actually be a reliable guide to their beliefs. Surveys have found in the past that users hold a negative view of targeted advertising, despite its apparent effectiveness. In 2019, I wrote in depth about the growing body of academic research on consumers’ online privacy choices that helps to explain these disconnects. A counterintuitive takeaway is that the privacy preferences “revealed” by our real-world choices — for example, whether to grant an app certain permissions — are highly dependent on the situation, and easily manipulated by changes in framing.

That, after all, is what Facebook fears: that users presented with a privacy opt-out in an iOS pop-up will make a different choice than they make when the same choice is hidden in a preferences menu. Its hope with the ad campaign seems to be that it can reframe the choice in a way that will convince users — and perhaps ultimately policymakers — that personalized ads are not only a tolerable trade-off for its free service, but desirable in their own right. But don’t be surprised if Apple’s pop-ups reveal a different user preference than Facebook has long claimed.

A version of this article initially appeared in the Pattern Matching newsletter.

Senior Writer, OneZero, at Medium

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