Meta removes sensitive ad targeting options

While there will be an impact on advertisers looking to do good, the company cited experts who have been pointing to the potential for misuse.

Meta plans to remove the ability to target ads based on interest topics that reference causes, organizations or public figures that relate to health, race, ethnicity, political affiliation, religion or sexual orientation – despite the fact that advertisers want to reach audiences interested in the positive change their brands are trying to create in those areas.

Effective Jan. 19, 2022, advertisers will no longer be able to target ads based on those potentially sensitive topics, with the company using examples such as health-related topics like “lung cancer awareness,” “World Diabetes Day,” and “Chemotherapy”; topics related to sexual orientation like “same-sex marriage” and “LGBT culture”; topics based on religious groups like “Catholic Church” and “Jewish holidays”; and anything related to political beliefs and social issues.

Meta was careful to note that these interests associated with particular users had nothing to do with their actual characteristics or personal attributes, but were based on content they had interacted with on Facebook and Instagram.

While the move will surely impact well-intentioned advertisers looking to create a positive impact, or even non-profits looking to fundraise, experts have long warned that these targeting options have the potential for more harm than good, be it through discrimination or even targeted harassment campaigns. Meta’s VP of ad product marketing Graham Mudd referenced those experts directly in a blog post detailing the changes, saying “targeting options like these could be used in ways that lead to negative experiences for people in underrepresented groups.”

For example, last year, ongoing backlash resulted in Facebook removing certain ad targeting categories that advertisers had used to discriminate against certain users, such as an ad for housing that blocked Black, Asian and Hispanic people from seeing it.

In the blog post, Mudd attempted to dispel the concerns the company has heard from advertisers worried about the changes by pointing to other targeting options that remain available.

Those include creating custom audiences based on users that have directly engaged with an advertiser’s content or website, lookalike audiences based on those interactions, geographical targeting or targeting options based on an advertiser’s own first-party data.

In addition, the company is also introducing new user-facing ad controls that will allow them to opt out and see fewers ads in potentially sensitive areas. Those include politics, alcohol (which could be potentially triggering for those with addiction issues), parenting and pets (which could be unwanted for those in mourning). Further subjects like gambling and weight loss are being added early next year.