Facebook’s Gay-Targeted Ads Are Confusing, Patriarchal, Pointless

via collegecandy


Targeted ads aren’t a surprise; ads targeting your sexual preference can be, though, especially when they seem to have nothing to do with it.

In a study (link opens PDF) released Thursday by Microsoft and the Max Planck Institute in Germany, researchers found that sexual preference, location and user demographics and interests all affect Facebook ads.

Researchers created accounts for a lesbian, a gay man, two straight women and two straight men with otherwise identical profile information. They found a “measurable distance” between the ads targeted to gay and straight profiles. Significantly, not all gay-targeted ads featured obviously gay content; exactly half of the ads shown to gay men did not actually use the word “gay” anywhere in the text.

Alarmingly, we found ads where the ad text was completely neutral to sexual preference (e.g. for a nursing degree in a medical college in Florida) that were targeted exclusively to gay men. The danger with such ads, unlike the gay bar ad where the target demographic is blatantly obvious, is that the user reading the ad text would have no idea that by clicking it he would reveal to the advertiser both his sexual-preference and a unique identifier (cookie, IP address, or email address if he signs up on the advertiser’s site). Furthermore, such deceptive ads are not uncommon; indeed exactly half of the 66 ads shown exclusively to gay men (more than 50 times) during our experiment did not mention “gay” anywhere in the ad text.

This is sort of a problem. The study also found that there were more ads targeted specifically to gay men than there were for lesbians. This shouldn’t make you feel any better. According to Adrian Chen on Gawker:

Of course, if you’re comfortable enough to put it on your Facebook profile, you’re probably OK with some people knowing you’re gay. But whereas Facebook’s privacy settings allow you to choose who can see your sexual preference, you have no control over what information Facebook uses to target advertising. Facebook’s privacy policy states that it can even use ‘information you may have decided not to show other users (such as your birth year or other sensitive personal information or preferences) to select the appropriate audience for… advertisements.’ Anything you put on your profile is fair game.

In an interview with CNN, Facebook spokesperson Andrew Noyes denied the problem, stating, “We explicitly prohibit [advertisers] from associating that targeting detail with the data collected from the user in forms they fill out, applications they make or other interactions on their site […] We take the privacy of our users very seriously and take action when violations of these policies come to our attention.”

Given that Facebook is known for letting third party apps share information with advertisers, revealing private email addresses, having a founder that hacked user accounts for fun, rolled out privacy changes in a way that violated Canadian law twice and has generally been making it harder than ever to hide your sexuality/other personal info (should you want to), I question the validity of this statement.


The one thing that Facebook is actually doing right is cracking down on bullying and anti-gay pages. Naturally, the Family Research Council thinks this is a horrible idea.

According to Tony Perkins, the head of the FRC, Facebook is cowardly for taking down homophobic content. (Because sticking up for people insulting minorities that you just don’t like isn’t cowardly at all.) Yesterday on Opposing Views, Perkins wrote, “It may happen slowly, but I guarantee that Facebook will begin to broaden its definition of what’s ‘hateful’ based on GLAAD’s prior actions. Will GLAAD pressure Facebook, as it did the Washington Post, to purge any research about the risks of homosexuality? Will discussions about biblical faith suddenly be considered harassment? And, more importantly, will these standards be applied across the board?” Then he used air quotes around the words hate crime. Feeling outraged yet? The FRC contact page is here.


In a unanimous ruling, the European Court of Human Rights stated on Thursday that Russia violated the rights of gay activists — including previously forcefully detained Nikolai Alekseyev — by preventing open protest. The government will have to pay a fine and damages equivalent to $41,300.

Yuri M. Luzhkov (recently-fired former mayor of Moscow) is known for being a public opponent to gay rights and has called pride parades “satanic.” While vowing to prevent a parade planned for May, Luzhkov said, “We haven’t permitted such a parade and we won’t permit it in the future. It’s high time that we stop propagating nonsense discussions about human rights, and bring to bear on them the full force and justice of the law.” According to the AP, the court said that while marches were officially banned to uphold public order, the real reason was “a dislike of gays and lesbians.” Unfortunately, Luzhkov will not be held personally responsible for paying the fine and damages.

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Ryan Yates

Ryan Yates was the NSFW Editor (2013–2018) and Literary Editor for Autostraddle.com, with bylines in Nylon, Refinery29, The Toast, Bitch, The Daily Beast, Jezebel, and elsewhere. They live in Los Angeles and also on twitter and instagram.

Ryan has written 1142 articles for us.


  1. I get approximately two types of ads on Facebook, ever:

    1) Support Gay Causes
    2) Join Army JAG

    If they’re going to target me, I wish they’d at least be consistent.

  2. Dudes, I get so many gay/lesbian targetted ads AND I HAVEN’T EVEN LISTED MY SEXUALITY ON FACEBOOK. This makes me think that maybe they know what websites we’ve been on, our search history etc.

    Or maybe the fact that I repeatedly search ‘gay’ then ‘posts by friends’ to see if anyone I know has come out. *outraged shrug*

    • You’re probably right about Facebook knowing what sites you’ve been on previously.

      Also, researchers: every time you use the phrase “sexual preference,” god kills a kitten.

    • Do you have any lgbt relevant fan pages in your ‘likes’?
      Cause I get a lot of gay male ads as a gay lady, I don’t want hunky man meat staring at me from the little space on the right of my screen. Do not want. But in my likes I have Harvey Milk, Chris Colfer, etc. Idk. Silly facebook. Get your shit together.

    • My sexuality isn’t listed either, but the fact that I enjoy Tegan and Sara is. That appears to be enough evidence of gayness for Facebook.

    • whoa same. I’m not listed as anything, yet I gt adds for “gay gifts” all the time. For all facebook knows, I’m asexual. That’s just rude.

  3. I shudder to think what I would see if I had Firefox’s AdBlock disabled. I don’t even put my sexuality and relationship status on FB!

    • Same here. I’ve been engaged to my partner for like a jillion years and before I got ABP all Facebook would give me was wedding and baby ads. (My partner wasn’t on Facebook back then, so I assume they figured I was marrying a dude.)

      Seriously, Firefox + Ad Block Plus + disable on sites you want to support (such as this one!) = success.

      • I was listed as married for funsies, and I immediately started getting baby ads and weight loss ads.

        • I have no information relating to sexual orientation, relationships, whatever, on facebook, but I ALWAYS get ads for IVF treatment. I don’t even know what that is supposed to say about me…

  4. I seem to get more ads for alcoholics anonymous, bulimia and anorexia treatment, and general psychological counseling than anything else. First of all, I’m underage and so I shouldn’t be drinking anyway, second of all, I don’t suffer from any of these problems! Wtf. Also there is nothing on my Facebook that would make anyone come to the conclusion that I’m an alcoholic/bulimic/anorexic/depressed/suicidal person. They’re completely making assumptions based on my college network. -__-

  5. the damn facebook ads outed me at work! ” rayne, why are there so many gays ads on the side your page?”

  6. right now, the only site i trust is here and tumblr. yeah, you can’t get away from naomily, but no one will know that…

  7. I mosltly get ads for games.
    And dating ads. Even though I’ve got my thing set to “In a relationship”. Hrrm…

  8. I have my political views listed as “equality and gagaism” and i get tons of ads about “i love healthcare” “waiting for superman” “obama this and that” etc. so i guess lady gaga is a legit part of the democratic party now??

  9. I continually see an ad that asks me if I’m looking for a pardon for my Canadian criminal record.

    That parking violation from ’96 is apparently still haunting me!

  10. I seem to get a mixed bag, girly crap, facebook games, poker and a couple of randoms. Like seriously, WTF??? Yeh poker is fine but the rest, seriously?? I would rather the gay stuff then the make-up and high hells ads im getting right now. Im going to go say they’re offensive to me.

  11. i actually removed “interested in women” because the WEAR YOUR PRIDE ugly rainbow t-shirt ads bothered me. facebook shoved me back in the closet.

  12. My 2 FB ad flavors:
    LESBIAN SINGLES IN YOUR AREA ! (accompanied by a lovely picture)
    NEW MEDICAL TREATMENT FOR GIANT FIBROIDS ! (a less lovely picture)

    I’m a physician so I also get ads to attend medical conferences, which all look boring as shit.

  13. I think the fact that I have both men and women listed after my “interested in” confuses the Facebooks. I get the most random assortment of ads. I think maybe I should be offended by that?

  14. I don’t mind being targeted with gay ads. I’m gay. Sometimes I get targeted with trans ads, and frankly I think it’s awesome there are even ads for trans folk.

    It’s better than getting ads for Sarah Palin and Carly Fiorina.

  15. i saw an ad on some website for a facebook IQ test application that really got my attention because they used one of my ex girlfriend’s profile pictures. pissed me off like mad

  16. My relationship status, ‘interested in’ and even my sex/gender have been removed from FB, so even with all the queer things that I post, my ads seem to all be movie, marketing and design related. Before ALL I got were personal ads and ads for ugly pride tshirts (like Laura mentioned)…

  17. Sorry this isn’t really related to the ads but I wanted to share my facebook story. I’ve been wondering WHO are these bullies who are the source of such pain and suffering for the LGBT teens. I searched words like ‘so gay’ and ‘dyke’ in the public statuses and was hocked that they were coming through minute by minute. I’ve been stuck in a bubble of safety with my friends and family who know and accept me and seeing the ignorance of complete strangers made me feel scared. It’s only a small glimpse into the discrimination but a shocking one, I know the PSA ads did a wonderful job in highlighting ‘That’s so Gay’ but obviously we can’t stop yet.

  18. First of all, I’m really glad that I’m not the only who’s noticed this, because I thought maybe I was just crazy. My sexuality isn’t listed either, nor is my relationship status. Most of my ads involve gay stuff, games, pop culture things I’m not even interested in, and a strange assortment of randomness. I’ve taken to marking things that I particularly hate as offensive. I mean, I’ve gotten several ads for Miley fucking Cyrus. That’s rude and unnecessary.

  19. I’ve been getting ads for escorts in Perth recently. Who knew that people of undefined gender and sexuality wanted escorts?

  20. I feel like if you make a facebook profile, you are setting up a profile on the internet which reveals who you are and certain things about you. I don’t understand why we’re all shocked every time facebook discovers who we are or certain things about us. Just don’t use facebook, or use it sparingly, like any other aspect so pervasive in your everyday 3-D life. idk.

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