January 25, 2021 Hanna Selman

Why We See Digital Ads After Talking About Something

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.

Summary

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.

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Comments (10)

  1. Patrick

    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.

    • James M. Joyce

      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

  2. John

    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.

  3. H

    > 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.

    • James M. Joyce

      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!

  4. James

    We talk about this phenomena when it happens, but not the million times it doesn’t.

    • James M. Joyce

      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.

  5. Tammy

    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?

  6. 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.

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