Bereaved mother criticises tech firms over targeted baby ads

13 Dec 2018

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Video editor Gillian Brockell posted an open letter to tech firms on Twitter, criticising targeted ads on social media after she experienced a stillbirth.

The mother of a stillborn baby has asked tech firms to re-examine how they target ads.

Gillian Brockell, based in Washington DC, posted a message to Twitter, calling out the company as well as Facebook, Instagram and Experian. In the message, she questioned why the companies were able to deduce her pregnancy, but did not pull baby ads from her feed after the tragedy.

Calling out targeted baby ads

Other people have also shared their experiences of similar situations online. In her message, Brockell said she had posted about the stillbirth on Twitter, but none of the tech firms picked up on this or other online patterns resulting from her son’s death.

She said that she continued to see pregnancy and baby-related content on her social feeds. “Did you not see the three days of silence, uncommon for a high-frequency user like me?” she wrote.

“And then the announcement with keywords like ‘heartbroken’ and ‘problem’ and ‘stillborn’ and the 200 teardrop emoticons from my friends? Is that not something you could track?”

Brockell added that when she tried to change her ad preferences, the response from the firms was not suited to her circumstances. “When we … click ‘I don’t want to see this ad,’ and even answer your ‘Why?’ with the cruel-but-true ‘It’s not relevant to me,’ do you know what your algorithm decides?

“It decides you’ve given birth, assumes a happy result, and deluges you with ads for the best nursing bras … tricks to get the baby to sleep through the night … and the best strollers to grow with your baby.”

Facebook responds

Facebook advertising boss Rob Goldman responded, apologising for Brockell’s experience. He also noted that the platform had settings to block ads about topics users may find difficult, including parenting. Brockell thanked him, but said the solution was still not suitable. She added she was shown an ad for adoption services, even when the setting was switched off.

In October of this year, Anna England-Kerr, based in the UK, described social media ads “taunting” her following the death of her infant daughter. She told The Daily Telegraph: “Fourth [sic] months after my baby passed I was still receiving adverts for cots [and] changing my settings made no difference.

“It shouldn’t be this hard. I shouldn’t have to furiously change all the settings to prevent this. I know I am not the only person who has been put through this.” Facebook said this particular incident had been caused by a bug in its system.

Responding to Brockell, Twitter said: “We cannot imagine the pain of those who who have experienced this type of loss. We are continuously working on improving our advertising products to ensure they serve appropriate content to the people who use our services.”

Facebook login page. Image: burdun/Depositphotos

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects