How Does Facebook Know You're Pregnant?S

You use Facebook to keep up with old friends/obsessively hate-click through their photo albums and stalk your exes. But Facebook uses you to sell your professed "likes" to marketers. Many of us have a vague understanding of how this symbiotic relationship works, but figure that Mark Zuckerburg's minions only grab our publicly displayed information. But according to Ad Age, "there's a gap between what marketers say they are being told and Facebook tells a journalist on the record" — and they suspect this thanks to the way advertisers say they target the holy grail of demographics: pregnant women.

30-year-old tech entrepreneur "Sally" is pregnant, but she never "liked" any baby-related posts or pages, attempted to crowd-source best natural birthing tactics, or posted about her pregnancy in general. So why did a Huggies ad pop up on her Facebook page?

Facebook and Kimberly-Clark (which owns Huggies) say the ad targeting was thanks to "blind luck" — the ad was the subject of a test targeting young children, Huggies fans, their friends, and a three-day subtest of women ages 18 to 34.

But Sally suspected it might be because her husband once tagged her in a photograph showing a positive home pregnancy test. Which is kind of creepy, because Facebook says it doesn't usually use status updates as a signal for ad targeting. But why wouldn't they? And should we care that it seems like they're avoiding the question? From Ad Age:

...plenty of marketers that target pregnant women believe they're identifying them, at least in part, by their status updates. Some marketers say they have been told so by Facebook. The confusion over what exactly Facebook is doing is indicative not only of the opacity of the social network's ad-targeting algorithms but also the privacy tightrope it walks, offering marketers the precision they crave while assuaging users that their every utterance isn't being mined for ad targeting.

Here's what we know, based on what Facebook has told Ad Age: Marketers can reach pregnant women on Facebook with near-surgical precision, mixing and matching a variety of targets, such as those interested in baby products and people who like children's music, which taken together produce a high likelihood of hitting the mark.

Sure, it's not exactly breaking news that Facebook works with marketers to target potential customers. But why are they so unclear about how they do it? Café Mom VP-Marketing Kristina Tipton said her team identifies likely pregnant or recently pregnant women by " anonymously targeting specific keywords that show up in users' conversations" like "morning sickness," "ultrasound" and "pregnancy test," terms that Facebook says are only created for "precise interest targets" if users add those words and phrases to their profiles as "likes" or interests. But, as Ad Age notes, who in their right mind, other than a crisis pregnancy center zealot, would "like" those terms? It's way more likely that a woman would update her Facebook status to be all TMI-y about throwing up in the morning than she would be to "like" "morning sickness" alongside Radiohead and Freedom. And some Facebook advertisers support that hypothesis; one said Facebook had straight-up explained that they target "user activity including relevant status updates, likes and interests."

When you make a Facebook page, you sign away your rights over your status updates; Facebook's data use policy says that "key words from your stories" are used to deliver ads. So why is Facebook so cagey on the matter? Some say it's no big deal, more indicative of how the company is still playing around with its algorithms than anything sketchy, and that both advertisers and "consumers," — er, they mean Facebook users, right? — will benefit. "For me, it doesn't seem like they're trying to be deceptive," said senior digital planner Justin Oh. "It seems like they don't want to say anything definitive and be held to that, almost."

Excellent sleuthing skills, there! Ah, well — there's always the relative anonymity of Instagram? For at least the next few months or so.

Does Facebook Know You're Pregnant? [Ad Age]

Image by Ahmad Faizal Yahya/Shutterstock.