Facebook’s racial targeting isn’t new, bad or always illegal despite renewed attention

"Ethnic Affinity" targeting has been offered for nearly two years, has real benefits and is legal for many types of ads.

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Breaking! Facebook now allows advertisers to illegally target ads based on race. Except it doesn’t, despite some of the breathless headlines you may have read today.

Those often confusing, misleading or downright incorrect headlines came out of a ProPublica story today pointing out that Facebook allows for “Ethnic Affinity” targeting. The article gives the impression that this is somehow new and that it was used to place a housing ad in violation of US law.

That’s incorrect. Let’s break it down.

Facebook “Ethnic Affinity” targeting, explained

Many people know that you can target Facebook ads to people with certain interests or demographics. For example, you can make an ad aimed at millennials who appear to have a new job, consider themselves moderate in US politics and are college grads.

Among the many options offered is the one for ads to be targeted based on “Ethnic Affinity,” as you can see below:


As you can see, you can broadly target people who seem to have an affinity with African Americans, Hispanic Americans and Asian Americans. You can also exclude those groups if you wanted to largely target White Americans.

That is NOT the same as actually targeting people who say they are one of those racial groups. That’s because Facebook does not allow you to indicate your race, as the company has repeated in statements today, including to Marketing Land.

Anyone can see this for themselves. Go to your Facebook profile, and it’s happy for you to declare your birthday, your gender, your religion, your political views and languages you speak. But you cannot indicate your race.

But isn’t ethnic affinity just a proxy for race? By and large, yes. Facebook is looking at things someone likes or other data to effectively guess if someone is of a particular race, as it explained in a response to today’s news attention. Technically, the targeting option isn’t based on someone’s race. But ultimately, that’s what it’s designed to do.

Targeting ads based on race isn’t necessarily bad

An easy immediate reaction for some is to feel disgust that a business might create ads based on someone’s race. The reality is that such a capability isn’t necessarily bad. In fact, it can be beneficial.

The best example of this that comes to mind is Bevel, a company that’s made its mark especially serving an underserved market: razor products for African Americans.

The same razor is not perfect for all men. Black men are far more likely than white men to suffer razor bumps. Bevel is unique as a product that has renewed the attention over this and offers up a solution.

Now, it’s not that only African Americans might want to use Bevel. But if you’re a start-up business trying to make the best use of your advertising dollars, targeting ads to African Americans on Facebook for a product especially designed for them makes a whole lot of sense.

By the way, I don’t know that Bevel does this type of advertising targeting on Facebook. I’m only pointing out that it’s a perfect example of why it could be useful. Facebook, doing damage control, is offering up its own examples, such as in the statement below:

When World Cup 2014 became a big focus throughout the US Hispanic community, a business developed a campaign to reach people who had shown interest in that community in order to create a positive association between its brand and the world’s most popular sport. This meant more relevant ads to those audiences about the World Cup.

All major brands have strategies to speak to different audiences with culturally relevant creative. Just for purposes of illustration, a car company will run creative for one of their vehicles, but will have one creative execution targeting the Hispanic affinity cluster in Spanish. They may create a different creative for the African American affinity cluster featuring black actors and stressing another insight that is specific to that group. All major brands do this because they know that audiences respond better to creative that speaks to them specifically. This is the case across all industries.”

Other examples: hair products for African-Americans, ads for Spanish beer

Similarly, it explains why reverse targeting or exclusion can be useful:

Marketers use this type of targeting to assess whether ads resonate more with certain audiences vs. others. For example, some audiences might click on Spanish-language ads for a World Cup sponsorship vs. other audiences might click more on the same ads in English, so the sponsor might run one campaign in English that excludes the Hispanic affinity group to see how well the campaign performs against running that ad campaign in Spanish. This is a common practice in the industry.

Facebook’s racial targeting isn’t new

Another common misconception that I’ve seen repeatedly today is that this racial targeting option is somehow new. ProPublica wrote of it as something Facebook is “doing nowadays,” which helps gives that impression.

It’s not new. Facebook says that the ability to target Hispanic Americans was launched nearly two years ago, in November 2014. In fact, there’s a detailed page on Facebook explaining it. It’s not like this has been some hidden stealth capability that has just emerged. The ability to target African Americans and Asian Americans was released last year, Facebook said.

Facebook’s racial targeting had huge publicity before

It’s also not the case that that no one had heard about this type of targeting on Facebook, before ProPublica wrote about the nearly two-year-old capability.

Earlier this year, there was plenty of publicity and news articles about how the movie Straight Outta Compton created different ads based on racial types to get people of all races out to the movie. Facebook even posted a case study about it.

Racial targeting of ads is illegal only in narrow cases

Some of the articles and comments I’ve read today have the mistaken assumption that ads targeted to race are illegal. They are not except if they deliberately exclude some races — and then, only by US law in housing and employment.

The ProPublica article did say this, but that aspect seems lost on many. It’s important to remember. There are, again, good reasons why you might want to have racial targeting with ads. There are also good reasons why this should be prohibited in some cases.

Facebook didn’t approve illegally racially-targeted ads

You might get the impression from all the headlines that Facebook has been approving and running racially targeted ads in violation of US law. That’s not the case, nor did any of the articles I read show that.

ProPublica’s article did show how it placed an ad that excluded all races but whites on Facebook. But this wasn’t for a “housing ad,” as it claimed. It was for a renters forum. Here’s how ProPublica showed the ad order. Below is an example provided to Marketing Land by Facebook on how the ad rendered:

ProPublica Facebook ad

Maybe there’s some aspect to US law that says advertising an event covering how to fight illegally high rents is the same as advertising actual housing. Even if there were, this ad still wouldn’t be evidence of wrongdoing. That’s because, on its own, Facebook would have no idea if the same advertiser was advertising the event to other racial groups with different creative — which would be allowed.

In fact, someone with actual houses for sale might exclude all but one particular race if they wanted to show creative that people from that race might respond to better — i.e., if you want all families to rent your apartments, creative with an Asian American family might work best targeted to that group, a Hispanic American family to that group and so on.

To my non-legal eye, the onus is primarily on the advertiser, not the publisher, to understand what they can or can’t do to target ads.

Facebook has policies in place but may need to police more

That doesn’t mean Facebook or other platforms are off the hook. Facebook itself points out that it has policies against illegal ads and takes action if these are spotted:

We expressly prohibit discrimination and take prompt enforcement action when we determine that ads violate our policies.

Certainly it might do much more to ensure that ads in these sensitive areas come under special review. The ProPublica article points out the type of review that the New York Times does.

But the New York Times is especially doing that because it was sued over discriminatory ads. Facebook hasn’t been, nor did any of the articles show this as being widespread today.

Maybe it is — and that’s certainly worth the time and attention to investigate. But to simply flat-out prohibit racial ad targeting in protected areas, as one expert in The Atlantic suggests, overlooks the fact that exclusion in a particular ad is not the same as exclusion over all, if the entire campaign is done to serve unique creative to all groups.

Bottom line: Any type of ad targeting can be a powerful tool that can help both businesses and consumers or pose harm, if abused. Don’t stop the capability. Stop the abuses, where they are found. Today’s round of articles focused heavily on the capability and potential abuse, not actual abuse.

Contributing authors are invited to create content for MarTech and are chosen for their expertise and contribution to the martech community. Our contributors work under the oversight of the editorial staff and contributions are checked for quality and relevance to our readers. The opinions they express are their own.

About the author

Danny Sullivan
Danny Sullivan was a journalist and analyst who covered the digital and search marketing space from 1996 through 2017. He was also a cofounder of Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land, MarTech, and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo and MarTech events. He retired from journalism and Third Door Media in June 2017. You can learn more about him on his personal site & blog He can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.

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