We’ve all been there. You’re having a conversation with a friend about a product he or she wants you to try. Later that day, you’re scrolling Facebook and bam! Eerily, there’s an ad on your timeline for that EXACT product. Your flags are raised. You look over each shoulder, crouch in the shadows, and suddenly, you feel vulnerable. Is Facebook listening to us? Seeing digital ads after talking about something may lead you to think so.
There’s a reason this is happening, but “listening” is probably not it.
Talking about something and seeing a digital ad for it. Thinking about something and seeing a digital ad for it. Even dreaming about something and seeing a digital ad for it.
Peoples’ collective experiences like these have led many to ask the question, “Is technology listening to us?” It’s a question that has been blatantly posed to social media leaders like Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) and Adam Mosseri (Instagram). Time and time again, they have adamantly denied the fact that their apps are “listening” to users via smartphone microphones and the like.
The general consensus among industry experts is that they are telling the truth. For one, doing so would be illegal. Secondly, the logistics of actively listening to, recording and storing conversations just don’t make sense when you really think about it.
Tracking, not listening
So if Facebook and Instagram aren’t listening, then how do our conversations and thoughts about products magically turn into ads?
In a way, social platforms are “eavesdropping,” but just not in the way we think.
We see digital ads after talking about something because social media apps like Facebook and Instagram are extensively tracking our actions, both online and off.
A hypothetical scenario
Let’s say you are at a birthday party, and your friend tells you about this new meal service he or she has tried and loved (let’s call it “Yummy Time.”) You have never texted about Yummy Time. You have never Googled Yummy Time. You and your friend simply have a conversation about it out loud.
Hours later, you’re at home scrolling the News Feed and whoa…there’s an ad for Yummy Time.
How they track
No, Facebook didn’t hear your conversation. They are just so good at tracking you in other ways that it can feel that way.
We know that Facebook surveils our online behaviors: i.e., what websites we visit, what terms we search for, what we purchase online, etc. These tracking methods (which get extremely sophisticated beyond what we’re describing here) have a direct influence on the ads that we see.
In the case of the conversation with the friend, we can thank location tracking for that. Even when one is not signed in to the app, Facebook (given permission by the user) can track the location of our mobile phones.
Therefore, Facebook was able to determine that you and the friend were in the same location at the party. If the friend had previously had any online interaction with Yummy Time, then there is your connection. Facebook knows you’re friends on Facebook. It knows you were together. If that friend is bringing up Yummy Time, it’s likely that he or she has had some kind of recent interaction with it—Googling it, visiting the website, etc. Even if the mentioned product was one your friend purchased in a store, Facebook location tracking can be privy to the fact that your friend was at said store.
Let’s take it a step further. Even if your friend (Friend A) had only had a conversation about Yummy Time with another friend (Friend B), then Friend A could have been the one on the receiving end of the ad prior to talking about it with you. That’s enough for Facebook to try the ad with you as well.
In other words…
Beyond just being together, Facebook’s algorithm compares your interests, demographics, places you’ve been, groups you’re a part of, hashtags you follow (the list goes on) to that of your friend. If you and your friend are similar, and the friend has already left a trail of breadcrumbs to that product, then Facebook will serve you up an ad to see if you feel the same.
Fueling the algorithm
So what about those times when you just think about something, and then you see an ad?
It can be difficult to wrap your head around, but it likely is less of a coincidence than you think. Any piece of information Facebook picked up (even just semi-related to the thought), either before or after your thought, could have led to the ad being served.
Every move you make online fuels Facebook’s algorithm. Engaging with a post, liking a person’s photo, or even using your Facebook account to sign in to another online service are all examples of this.
Essentially, a complex algorithm is “listening” to us, just not using microphones.
Can I stop being tracked?
There are permissions you can play around with to limit how Facebook tracks and uses your information. However, if you are using the social platform in any capacity, then it has enough information to go off of to “learn” your potential interests for advertising purposes.
The only true way to stop being subject to social media marketing algorithms? Quit altogether.
Seeing digital ads after talking about something is no coincidence. Though we don’t think anyone is sitting in a warehouse with a pair of headphones listening to our conversations, technology is actively monitoring our behaviors to make suppositions about our future buying inclinations.
McNutt & Partners is a full-service advertising and digital marketing agency. Contact us today for your marketing needs! Call 334-521-1010, or visit our contact page.
This Post Has 23 Comments
Could you perhaps explain this? I agreed with my dad that we wouldn’t type the words “cat” or “cat food” on our phones, and we would only talk about getting cat food to test these targeted ads. Not even a full day later, I was on YouTube about to listen to a song and I got an ad for cat food? We do not have cats, and we talked about getting cat food for less than 24 hours and I got an ad for it.
Patrick – there are many reasons this might occur. Aside from interest-based flags like searching for a pet store location, liking cat-related pages on Facebook, watching cat-related videos on YouTube, or other ways you might end up in an audience of “potential cat owners”, it can simply be coincidence. National brands in particular cut a wide swath on YouTube and elsewhere, trying to reach as many potential customers as possible, and sometimes ending up serving cat food ads to non-cat-owners. One of our team members consistently received bourbon ads on YouTube for quite some time, despite never having registered any interest in such by watching related videos (even so broad as videos covering other spirits, beers, wines, etc.) – this was likely based on a targeting of all adults in a particular state, region, or the whole US. We’ve seen cat food ads specifically on YouTube as well, despite those same team members not being pet owners.
this also happened to me, my brother and i were talking about surfing at turtle bay and an ad for turtle bay resort pops like 2 mins laterup so then we start talking about toilet paper and a couple mins later a charmin toilet paper ad pops up so then just to make sure we start talking about dog food and a blue nature cat food ad pops up this is not a fake story to try to prove you wrong or argue im just wondering if that could ever happen because it was kinda scary
I’m going to remain convinced that my phone is listening to me. I’ve tested this many times. Random subjects I’ve never searched, spoken aloud by my wife and I, and within a day, ads for that specific product or service. These are actually triggered by the phrase “I need” or “I need to pick up”. That phrase, followed by any product you wish to try out, will usually result in targeted ads. I have done this several times. They listen. Or at least a voice recognition algorithm does.
One thing that convinces me we are being listened to is how quickly very specific content will appear after a conversation, sometimes within hours or minutes. I don’t see how that can be explained by even the most sophisticated algorithms or tracking of patterns.
My freakiest experience was once after getting a mammogram. A week later I received a hard copy letter through the mail informing me that I have dense breast tissue and should consider a different kind of mammogram next time. I did not receive any electronic versions of this information. I didn’t Google it or speak to anyone about it, but the very next day a notice came across my Facebook feed about candidates needed for a local research study on women with dense breast tissue. Skeptics will say I must have looked at something online that was related, but I absolutely remember that I did not. I read the letter, threw it away and didn’t think about it again until the feed came across my Facebook.
Valea – we can definitely see how it would be unsettling to receive a targeted ad about a medical matter in that kind of proximity. That said, we believe this may be another (freaky, for sure!) coincidence. What likely happened was that the university, company, or other organization sponsoring the study placed an ad with an audience that included you, based on age, gender, and other parameters. Simply based on that, it would have appeared in your feed. Facebook has a “why am I seeing this ad” option that you can click on, and it will tell you what audience parameters used on the ad it thinks you matched with.
> The only true way to stop being subject to social media marketing algorithms? Quit altogether.
Could you expound a bit on how to do this? I am not a member of facebook, yet facebook keeps a “shadow profile” on me. My ad blockers find and block facebook scripts on more than 80% of websites I visit. And who knows how many other companies have shared data about me with facebook in transactions I know nothing about and have no control over.
I would love to ‘quit altogether’ but I have yet to figure out how. So if you have a solution, do tell.
Also, isn’t it a bit disingenuous to pretend that some companies haven’t been exposed doing exactly what you’ve described? Samsung and Vizio were both caught red-handed recording private conversations through their televisions. Facebook admitted that they recorded private conversations (though they promised they weren’t using those recorded private conversations for “targeted marketing”). Apple, Amazon, and Google have all been found to be sending random audio – including things like very intimate moments – from their “smart” devices and phones back to themselves, without permission or warning.
You paint a rosy picture, but I’m afraid it is not a very realistic one.
Holden – we’re aware of the Vizio and Samsung privacy incidents, but they fall a bit outside the scope of this post, which was intended to address the ways that audience profiles are built by Google and the social network operators. We agree that Google, Apple, Amazon, and others do not have spotless privacy records, and they could do more to prevent the kinds of accidental recordings that have been well-documented before. Investigations have characterized those incidents (particularly with smart speakers) more as improper activations, where the device was triggered by what it thought was a wakeword, but was not. Our post here more addresses the idea that phones and other devices are intentionally always-on listening and transmitting our conversations to manufacturers and tech companies, which there does not appear to be evidence for, and the advanced methods of audience targeting that these companies develop and make available to advertisers.
We would also like to say that we had any solutions for completely blocking Facebook and others from building shadow profiles, but we don’t have anything foolproof to offer. Our comment that you mentioned here refers to the on-network profile building that Facebook performs. Their off-network data collection and shadow profile practices are their own issue, and one that we would consider another topic. Ad and script blockers can help with such data collection, but won’t do much to address Google’s data collection, as their algorithms make use of data from all searchers, whether logged in with a Google account or not.
Thanks for your feedback!
We talk about this phenomena when it happens, but not the million times it doesn’t.
Agreed, James – it stands out when this seems to occur, but it’s much easier to overlook the number of times when it doesn’t, or when totally irrelevant ads are served to us instead.
interesting. today, I met and spoke with a client about our dogs. we spoke for a while and she mentioned insurance at 1 point.
I regularly see dog videos in my feed and like them but not today. my dogs are not here with me anymore and havent been for a while now. I also did not search or look up anything with dogs today.
I got an ad for dog insurance in a social media app. I only have 1 social media app. I have never seen an ad for pet insurance before but today I did.
if they were listening, wouldn’t key words spoken help with ad placement? so, could they be listening but only saving key words to help make more money?
probably a coincidence…
do you recommend a well established VPN provider? does having those services help with tracking and security? does it work?
Kim – it sounds like the regular watching and liking of dog videos led the social media network to place you in an audience segment of possible dog owners or people who generally like dogs. The pet insurance provider will likely have targeted an audience including those interests, in your area, and likely with an age range that includes you. So while the timing is an interesting coincidence, this one seems well-explained by how social media ads can be targeted, without any surreptitious snooping.
With regard to commercial VPNs, you won’t see much if any added security or privacy by using them, except on public, open WiFi networks like at a coffee shop, where they can help you keep any unencrypted traffic away from other people on that network. Elsewhere, all a VPN will do is change which IP address (and thus internet service provider) you appear to be browsing from – if you continue to use your existing social media account and other accounts as normal, this one signal won’t change very much if anything about how ads are targeted to you. It can also prevent your ISP from gathering data on you, but in turn this ability is granted to the VPN provider, who may or may not be trustworthy, and may or may not be based in the United States. Hope this helps!
Twice in one week I had the eery experience of being “stalked” online. I talked to someone on my phone about something we had a question about, and I told my friend I would google the answer. Imagine my surprise after typing the word “What” into my computer and the rest of the question auto-populated! Since this is a topic that I have never googled, and it is also a topic I have never discussed with anyone before, I found it very disturbing.
Today I googled a company on my computer, not my phone, when my phone rang and the very same company invited me to do a survey! It is just too much to be coincidental. I have never visited that particular site before, and I have never supplied my phone number to them. This is scary, particularly as both my phone and computer are involved. How does one protect yourself against this kind of invasion? And how much of it is going on that we are completely unaware of?
Speech Recognition — AT&T uses it to transcribe voicemail messages and does a pretty good job of it. But one doesn’t even need to capture entire sentences or conversations; just key words. It seems elementary then for Alexa, Google, and Siri to do the same. So maybe tech is actively listening after all.
Thanks for explaining how conversations with a friend can also result in targeted ads based on what algorithms know of the friend. That means even if you get off of Facebook entirely, you can still be targeted.
Excellent article! Its nice to read something that successfully discusses complex technology in a manner accessible to anyone without dumbing down the content.
I’m own / operate a small tech company that has been doing integrations with marketing companies for about 15 years. We can say Facebook, Amazon, or Google are doing such and such, but *they* purchase incredible amounts of data from market research companies which have had decades of collecting data going even further back than the original Neilson devices, which brings up a point most people don’t fully understand.
The Neilson Portable Person Meter is an example of how these signals are used legitimately – but many user agreements contain wording that basically allows companies to collect “anonymous” data for analytics purposes which help drive product improvements (obtaining more data is a product improvement). The catch word is anonymous. Companies often sell this analytical data to large marketing research companies like Ipsos, Kantar, Olinger, Hanover, GfK, etc. Facebook and Amazon buy data from these companies and can easily match it directly to users. Some of these companies have more data than Facebook and Amazon combined!
Additionally, nearly every touch on a screen or mouse click has its coordinates collected. Marketing companies want to know exactly where in an image you clicked. This not only feeds into creating better ads, but it also is another piece of data that gives insight into who you are, what you’re thinking and what you want.
Two days ago I discussed “LARP-ing” (live action role play) with my partner as we walked through a park. I’ve never googled it, don’t know a single person who does it, and he didn’t even know what it was. I can state emphatically that given nothing but a conversation Amazon now has an entire array of costumes and weapons designed for larping advertised as “products you might enjoy” on my amazon homepage.
I consider myself to be an expert when it comes to data analytics and without the audio I can’t figure out a single reason that Amazon would show this. But I cannot jump to the conclusion that someone is spying on me – the volume of data that companies have on you is incredible, but it is even more impressive how it can be used. One client told me, “Last year we made almost 3 million dollars selling the data and algorithm required to tell whether or not someone likes pulp in orange juice.”
Mike – thanks for sharing your experience. Facebook, Google, Amazon, and others definitely make use of enormous amounts of data, likely far beyond what they collect using their own platforms and the tracking methods they use off-platform. Market research and audience statistics companies like Nielsen do certainly provide a good chunk of this, and as you noted, it’s common for interactions with websites and apps to be tracked down to the click or tap via common analytics packages like Google Analytics, Piwik, and others. Only Google insiders would be able to say how much of the data collected via Google Analytics is used outside of its anonymized, aggregated form, though we believe that use is minimal if it exists at all, as it would violate the agreements (and legislative testimony) Google has published, and they have more than enough data available to them on their users through means they disclose.
We’ve heard a lot of stories like yours – discussing a topic then seeing it appear later – and while we wouldn’t claim to know precisely how Amazon got the signal to show related items, we generally agree that it’s unlikely they’re directly “spying” on you. Speaking personally from my knowledge base as a technologist, I don’t believe it would make financial sense for Google et al to suck up all the audio they could. Setting aside the possible reputational damage, the processing power, bandwidth, and storage required to ingest and transcribe for hundreds of millions of active users, simultaneously, 24/7, would be staggering. To be able to recoup this investment, they would have to be able to sell the “enhanced” targeting to advertisers in a way that makes it known, even if by wink and nod, that it exists and offers something superior to the other signals they create audiences against. We’ve never seen anything of the sort.
While playing Overwatch with friends, I mentioned (typed) that I had Reese’s peanut butter cups. I didn’t say it out loud. I haven’t eaten, bought, or spoken about it for decades.
I don’t have Facebook. But Amazon Prime showed me a Reese’s ad the next day.
I agree with the commenter who pointed out all the times this DOESN’T happen. Yes, you’re right. But this was still SO WEIRD!
These incidents can definitely be freaky! If you’ve ever browsed candy – or even food of any kind – on Amazon, that can definitely contribute a data point that leads them to show you more. It’s also important to consider how often ads are not as targeted as we think – some major brands display ads like these to very large audiences. For large portions of those audiences, the ad may be totally irrelevant, but for the tiny percentage that it actually is, it can be quite noticeable.
We were talking about a VERY specific hardware at work, for a specific client (look up bocci plug removal tool). We only talked about it, and we searched for it on the office computers, not our phones.
Yet It popped in my Instagram ads when I was at lunch. Not an ad for Bocci plugs in general… but an ad specifically for the removal tool.
It is WAY too specific of a search to be random.
Benoit – one of the ways many believe Facebook and others track users is by IP address, so in our opinion this probably wasn’t random. If your phone is often on WiFi at the office, it will have connected to Instagram frequently from there, and advertising networks like Facebook use will have associated the two.
this is important especially for those like me who do surveys or play games for “$” we enter so much of our info and we are only looking to make a few dollars, instead get bombarded with call, emails. advertising that this would happen would be nice. thank you for pointing this out
I know that once I am thinking about something, all of a sudden I notice that item EVERYWHERE around, whereas I never noticed it at all. I don’t know the name of this phenomenon, but I sure have experienced it.
Hi Karen! The University of Colorado Denver says that this is known as the Frequency Illusion, or Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon. Our team has definitely experienced it too.