Social advertising endangers e-identity

A couple weeks ago Google released a new set of terms and conditions for its network of websites. For anyone wondering just what this document is, a “terms and conditions” is a long list of legalese that details all the things a company can or cannot do by you using its products. In the case of Google, their terms and conditions often entail things related to what kind of advertising they will use, how they will use your content, and so on. Google’s latest revision to its terms and conditions and how it chooses to use your content may concern you.

According to these new terms, Google noted that “your Profile name and photo may appear in Google products” to be used within advertising placed on Google’s websites. (Google “Terms of Service update” 10.11.13) This vague legalese is basically Google telling us that it will be using our names, photos, and other information to promote advertisements placed by its clients. If you ever write a positive review or statement about, for example, Southwest Airlines, Google may very well use this comment in an advertisement for Southwest’s products on one of its websites, like YouTube.

This concept of utilizing our content is far from new. Facebook is already known to use the names, photos, and content of its 1 billion-plus users to promote products Facebook offers or to use with advertisements placed on its website.

You may have seen this before, often in the form of a small ad on the top right with a picture of you or your friend’s profile. Often it will point out that you have been playing a new game like Candy Crush, or that you’ve recently visited a certain restaurant. These “social ads” then try to convince you or your friends to visit or like a certain page because your friends like or visit that place as well. Your very likeness is being used to encourage the sale of products you may use, but have perhaps never endorsed.

Now this all may sound disturbing, but in reality you can actually prevent Facebook and Google from using your personal identity to promote their products or advertisements placed on their websites. Both Facebook and Google currently offer rather obscure processes where you can “opt-out” from this social advertising by visiting discretely-placed pages in the settings section of these websites. Thankfully you can find out where these pages are hidden through a simple web search.

This sort of opt-out however is not across the board. Right now, both Google and Facebook only intend on stopping your name and image from being used on certain types of promoted content. In Google’s case, even if you opt-out they’ll still use your likeness to promote search results, noting if you have given a website a “+1,” the Google version of a Facebook “like.” The same is true for Facebook and its “Sponsored Stories,” where Facebook will still use the “Your friend likes Southwest Airlines” if you have liked Southwest Airlines and your friend sees an advertisement for Southwest on their timeline. Google and Facebook have not given very in-depth responses as to why they offer no complete opt-out, but this speaks to the necessity of social advertising on the social platforms these websites provide.

What we’re seeing here is a philosophical debate about advertising that has been going on for decades. In the 1960s, advertising moguls like David Ogilvy were famous for the “editorial style” of their magazine advertisements, which featured articles written to promote a certain product, as opposed to the flashy, colorful advertisements we’re used to today. Today that “editorial style” has taken the form of social advertising, which tries to use your likeness in an attempt to endorse products and establish an authority that your friends and family will use to make their buying decisions.

What’s interesting about this “social advertising” is that instead of just being editorialized and convincing, it uses the agency of people like you and me to endorse a product. If we weren’t just random people on the internet, this would be just like your favorite athlete on a box of Wheaties. The only two differences are that we are only endorsing products to our friends and family, and that we are not getting paid for these endorsements.

Both of these aspects are touchy. For one, many people would not be comfortable converting a “like” on Facebook to an endorsement to our most close friends and family. Sure, it may be the internet and sure, our friends and family may take it with a grain of salt, but from a philosophical standpoint the fact remains that Facebook and Google, among many other websites, are intentionally converting what we personally decide into decisions that are vocalized in the name of products and services we are not personally endorsing. There is an immense difference in language between saying “I like Wheaties” and “you should buy Wheaties.” Even more so, profiting from this without our consent or commission is unethical to say the least.

What’s happening here is the emergence of a new generation in advertising. The standards set by industry firms like the Internet Architecture Board are long dead and being replaced by these new forms of social advertising. We, as users, should definitely be concerned. Even though we use many of these website’s products free of charge, this in no way should be a sacrifice of agency in our right to endorse or not to endorse. We, as users, need to remain vigilant to this activity, or it may very well become the standard for every website and end any potential for us to maintain our agency.


—Joshua Sherman ’16 is an English major.

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