Do your targeted ads discriminate?


Advertisers face a dilemma when using increasingly sophisticated targeting capabilities for digital campaigns. While tightly targeted campaigns may perform better in terms of metrics, they can also create inequity.

It appears the more fine-tuned we get, the more automated decisions can discriminate. For example, before Facebook and Google’s recent updates, advertisers could target different pricing to different zip codes and choose to exclude zip codes that were underperforming. On the surface, these optimization practices might seem like smart business. However, these practices have reinforced major inequities, especially in the housing and finance sectors.

“Discriminatory practices are often built in the fabric of what we do and go as unquestioned as the air we breathe. If a college’s analytics show that the most successful students are white, female and from private schools, and its future decisions are based on such data, it will, by design, exclude students from other demographics and create inequity,” says Dr. Altaf Merchant, Gary E. & James A. Milgard endowed dean, Milgard School of Business, at University of Washington Tacoma.

Many marketers struggle to find ways to be equitable and use data to do the heavy lifting, especially with tools that are meant to optimize ad spending and user experience. Intentionality, vigilance and diversifying the advertising and marketing workforce can all help to avoid unintentional bias.

“Targeting and segmentation is not going away. Businesses will need to be more sensitive and intentional about how their strategies may perpetuate bias or be discriminatory,” Dr. Merchant says.

“Agencies and clients who take time to understand the priorities of their stakeholders are those best positioned to earn the trust and loyalty,” says Sabrina Baklenko, account executive at MNI Targeted Media.

Regular audits of automated systems can help safeguard companies against blind spots.

“How is targeting affecting the traditionally affected groups? Vulnerable groups? Groups that are less able to process information thoroughly and/or are otherwise resource challenged?” Dr. Merchant asks. “Changing these systems requires intentionality and vigilance. It is not enough to want to advertise to more diverse audiences, it will be necessary to intentionally create strategies and policies that are inclusive, creative and thoughtful to reach a more diverse audience.”

Dr. Merchant challenges our industry to take a step further. “It also is important that individuals hired into advertising and marketing reflect a diversity of ethnic, racial and cultural backgrounds. Their lived experience, and a work setting that’s open to hearing a variety of perspectives, will create a much larger breadth of advertising and marketing messages.”

Businesses that prioritize not only checks and balances within their marketing technologies, but also within their business strategies, have the greatest opportunity to make a long-lasting impact on equity.