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The social network: Where business is all up in my business
I think I may have told Mark Zuckerberg too much.
First, on a sidebar, Facebook asked me, “Do you know this person?” and showed a picture of my father. Next Facebook started displaying “photo memories,” pictures of people I occasionally Facebook-stalk that were taken at events I didn’t attend. But then the site did the creepiest thing yet: It began advertising engagement rings. And wedding dresses. And venues.
“In a relationship?” one ad asked. “Northern Virginia’s top wedding venue is already half-booked for the 2011 wedding season! Click here now to reserve your wedding day.”
“Shouldn’t that be tied to how long we’ve been together?” my boyfriend asked nervously.
Somehow, based on the demographic information I provided about myself—female, in a relationship, college sophomore, unspecified age, liberal, interested in “This Weekend in D.C.” and “PostSecret”—I fell into Potomac Bridal’s target audience.
My boyfriend and I aren’t the only ones uncomfortable about Facebook advertising. My mom complains that all she gets are advertisements for wrinkle creams, Botox treatment, and weight loss programs, which she finds insulting.
“What does Facebook advertise to you?” I asked my boyfriend. “Tuxedos for your big day?”
“Cars,” he said. “Mazdas.”
My mom was jealous. “I’m the one who needs those advertisements!” she said. “I’d buy a little red Mazda!”
While it’s a recent phenomenon for advertisements to be tailored to us based on our Facebook information, our generation has been inundated with advertisements practically since birth. A.C. Nielsen Co., a media research firm, found that the average child sees 20,000 30-second television ads a year. By age 65, most people have seen two million television advertisements. These numbers don’t include the ads plastered on websites, billboards or sides of buses.
We’re so immersed in advertisements that we hardly notice them. But these advertisements can have an undeniable influence on how we see the world. We can learn a lot about our society from the way advertisements are structured. While some products fill a need, other advertisements create a need to fill.
Consider every infomercial you’ve ever seen. Is your stomach too flabby? Are your dishes not quite clean enough? Are your eyelashes too thin? Do you need a more exciting way to cut your apples? No problem! Just buy more crap. Good advertisements work by instilling a sense of anxiety that can only be alleviated by buying the product, even if that anxiety is unfounded.
As a result, many advertisements take the easy way out and try to tap into our anxiousness about social acceptance, especially our anxieties about gender roles. Is your girlfriend emasculating you by making you carry her lip balm? Drive a Dodge Charger. Is your drink too girly? Man up—get a Miller Lite. Are you a young woman in a relationship? Book your wedding venue before you become an old maid.
We have the freedom to choose not to buy a product or accept a particular stereotype. But if we don’t think critically, we incorporate the images we see on a regular basis into our understanding of what the world is “really like,” even if we ourselves don’t conform to the stereotype.
The bigger problem with Facebook advertisements is that they’re determined based on biographical information you’ve provided. It’s no secret that advertisements are targeted towards specific audiences. For the most part, these tactics are effective—companies know who is most likely to buy their product, and they know how to reach them. It’s fair to assume someone at a ballpark might want a beer, while someone watching television at home at 1 p.m. might want a Swiffer WetJet.
But Facebook advertisements merely bank on cultural assumptions about what individuals should want as a member of a certain demographic, which is often irrelevant to their actual desires. I’m a girl, so I’m supposed to be planning my wedding. My mom is older than 30, so she’s supposed to obsess about her appearance. My boyfriend, on the other hand, is the only one of us who would want a sports car. And if we accept the advertisers’ narrative as what is “normal,” while ignoring the interests that businesses have in perpetuating that narrative, we—sometimes literally—buy into stereotypes we would otherwise reject.
Do all women really have an intrinsic, biological need to fill their closets with uncomfortable shoes? Or is someone benefiting from the perpetuation of that assumption—perhaps, DSW? The next time you see an advertisement, ask yourself: In trying to make money, is this ad merely repeating a stereotype? If so, who is benefiting?
In the meantime—leave me alone, Potomac Bridals. Check back in a decade. And at that time, maybe my male peers will also be looking for tuxes.