Get a grip on online ads: A marketer shares her secrets

     (AP Photo: Timur Emek/dapd, file)

    (AP Photo: Timur Emek/dapd, file)

    There are a few easy things you can do to limit the information that is available to online advertisers. This is not a comprehensive list, but should you be interested in avoiding many customized ads, it should help.

    You may have noticed over the past few years that online advertisements have become oddly specific. Add a pair of shoes to your cart on one website; see that exact pair of shoes in an advertisement later on Facebook.

    Seeing ads related to a behavior or interest you exhibited online (such as clicking on a link, searching for a particular word or phrase, adding something to a shopping cart) is part of a suite of relatively new marketing techniques designed to improve the money returned on online advertisements. That’s the business view, at least.

    From a consumer’s view: Your past behavior and demographic information and interests — or some combination of all three— are regularly added into the mix when large companies offer online advertisers options for getting their products in front of the best possible audience.

    • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

    At first, I took an optimistic view on these changes. As a consumer, the advertisements I saw felt more relevant to me. As a marketer, I could understand how this would lower customer acquisition costs, particularly for online businesses. It seemed like a win-win.

    Then I became engaged to be married. My Facebook feed was dominated — and I mean dominated — by the wedding industry.

    After I changed my Facebook profile to “married,” the expensive wedding dress ads stopped and the baby-related ads started. Having no plans to procreate anytime soon, I became annoyed. They were getting me wrong, assuming that my less conventional, but intentional, life choices were a problem. Soon, it seemed to me that the diaper companies were in a war over my nonexistent baby’s bottom.

    Also, beyond the baby stuff, seeing that pair of shoes I didn’t buy in ads all over the internet, every day, made it more difficult to spend responsibly.

    Luckily, as I’ve learned, there are a few easy things you can do to limit the information that is available to online advertisers. You can’t avoid ads, but you do have some control over how customized the ads you see are if this kind of targeting bothers you. (Disclaimer: Some of these tips are about gaining privacy online, but I’m not an expert in online privacy.)

    Interest-based advertising

    You can avoid most interest-based advertising by not allowing cookies in your browser. Most browsers have a way to do this.

    The National Advertising Initiative, a non-profit organization that “champion[s] the responsible and transparent use of information for digital advertising,” has a tool you can use to opt out of their membership network.

    Google has one of the most transparent opt-out policies in the industry. Opt-out of their interest-based advertising here. (You can also remove individual items from your search history. I trust you’ll intuit how that could be useful.)

    Opt-out of Facebook interest-based advertising.

    Opt-out of Twitter interest-based advertising.


    You know how you can see products or pages your Facebook friends in your newsfeed? Those are usually called endorsements. Just as you see endorsements, unless you take steps to prevent it, you are likely featured in endorsements your friends see. Depending on your online habits, this could potentially become embarrassing very quickly. Luckily, you can usually opt out of those, too.

    Opt out of Google endorsements

    Opt out of Facebook endorsements


    Facebook advertising has an incredibly powerful interface that allows combines to target users based on behavior, interests and/or demographic information. That, combined with the fact that the average person spends 40 minutes per day on Facebook, means that Facebook warrants a closer look.

    Consider using a different email for Facebook and for logging in to commerce-based websites. Advertisers can match any information they possess (usually an email address from your log-in to thier site, but also occasionally device numbers from apps) to information from your Facebook profile. Facebook does conceal your specific identify when it does this. For example, if an advertiser uploads 1,000 email addresses and Facebook matches 300 to its profiles, advertisers don’t know which 300 were found, but can still serve those 300 custom advertisements.

    Create a secret identity. If you don’t like the ads or sponsored content you are getting on Facebook, you can make some creative adjustments to your personal profile. This is my favorite tactic. When you see ads you want to avoid, ask yourself, “What about my profile is making them show me an ad about $10,000 wedding dresses?” Oh! I recently changed my status to engaged! I can control that.

    You know that a post is an advertisement if it says “sponsored” directly under the Facebook page’s name. If it doesn’t say sponsored, it is just a post that a page made to its fans. “Sponsored” means that the company spent money to get into your newsfeed, usually this is a very small amount of money.
    YOU control the information on your Facebook profile. It doesn’t have to be accurate or completely filled in. The less you disclose, the harder it will be for companies to target you. If you’re like me and don’t want to see scary ads about female fertility just yet, consider changing (or not listing) your age, gender or marital status. For awhile, I listed myself as a “male” on Facebook. Now that they’ve added non-binary gender options, I’m “neither.” Therefore, I no longer see ads reminding me to have a baby before it’s too late.
    Overwhelmed with ads related to your profession? Change or don’t list your title or company in your profile.
    Other targeting is based on the pages you like, so keep an eye on that, too. Sometimes, pages you “like” will pay to promote their posts because Facebook has made it increasingly difficult for them to get their updates in your news feed.(Full disclosure: NewsWorks does this kind of advertising. Why? Our news stories are meant to be read! Left unsponsored, only a few hundred of our nearly 27,000 fans would see most stories. We pay to promote content so that people who care about news and current events have the opportunity to see posts about and then read our important coverage.)

    Cull your friends list. “Friends of fans” is another popular targeting option. In other words, advertisers promoting things your friends are interested in can choose to target you based on your connection. If you don’t want to see ads about children’s programming, consider this your cue to un-friend the guy you barely remember from high school who’s obsessed with Teletubbies!
    You can opt-out of specific companies’ advertisements by clicking on the downward facing arrow on the upper right corner of the sponsored post or advertisement.

    On the other hand, maybe you like learning about new products or services based on what advertisers know about you. It does make for a more personalized experience and, even with my workarounds, there have been many relevant online ads that led me to things I ended up loving. (When we advertise NewsWorks stories on Facebook, our fondest wish is that each and every person who clicks to read that story loves it and becomes a loyal reader.)

    Leave a comment below to share your own online advertising tips and tricks.

    Elyse Poinsett is WHYY’s marketing manager.

    WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal