Once upon a time, most advertisements were public. If we wanted to see what advertisers were doing, we could easily find it – on television, in newspapers and magazines, and on billboards around town.
This meant that governments, civil society and citizens could keep advertisers in check, especially when advertising products that could be harmful – such as alcohol, tobacco, gambling, pharmaceuticals, financial services or unhealthy foods.
However, the rise of online advertisements has led to a kind of “dark advertising”. Ads are often only seen by their intended targets, they disappear moments after being seen, and no one except the platforms knows how, when, where, or why the ads appear.
– Advertising –
In a new study on behalf of the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE), we checked the advertising transparency of seven major digital platforms. The results were grim: neither platform is transparent enough for the public to understand what ad they are posting and how it is targeted.
Why is transparency important?
Dark ads on digital platforms shape public life. They have been used to spread political lies, target racial groups, and perpetuate sexism.
Dark advertising on digital platforms is also a problem when it comes to addictive and harmful products such as alcohol, gambling and unhealthy foods.
Facebook ads allowed discrimination based on gender, race and age. We need to know how ‘dark ads’ affect Australians
In a recent study with VicHealth, we found that age-restricted products such as alcohol and gambling targeted people under the age of 18 on digital platforms. Currently, however, there is no way to systematically monitor the types of alcohol and gambling advertisements that children see.
Ads are optimized to drive engagement, such as through clicks or purchases, and target those most likely to engage. For example, people identified as high-volume drinkers are likely to receive more alcohol-related ads.
This optimization can have extreme results. A study by the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) and the Cancer Council WA found that a user received 107 advertisements for alcoholic products on Facebook and Instagram in a single hour on a Friday night. April 2020.
How transparent is advertising on digital platforms?
We assessed the transparency of advertising across major digital platforms – Facebook, Instagram, Google Search, YouTube, Twitter, Snapchat and TikTok – by asking the following nine questions:
- Is there a complete and permanent archive of all ads published on the platform?
- Is the archive accessible using an application programming interface (API)?
- Is there a searchable public dashboard that is updated in real time?
- Are announcements stored in the archives permanently?
- can we access deleted ads?
- can we download ads for analysis?
- Are we able to see what types of users the ad has targeted?
- How much did it cost to run the ad?
- can we tell how many people the ad reached?
Not all platforms included in our assessment met basic transparency criteria, which means that advertising on the platform is not observable by civil society, researchers or regulators. For the most part, advertising can only be seen by its targets.
Notably, TikTok had no transparency measures to allow observation of advertising on the platform.
Other platforms weren’t much better, none offering a full or permanent ad archive. This means that once an ad campaign is over, there is no way to observe which ads have been shown.
Facebook and Instagram are the only platforms to publish a list of all currently active advertisements. However, most of these ads are removed once the campaign becomes inactive and are no longer observable.
The platforms also do not provide contextual information for ads, such as ad spend and reach, or how ads are targeted.
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Without this information, it is difficult to understand who is being advertised on these platforms. For example, we cannot be sure that companies selling harmful and addictive products are not targeting children or people recovering from addiction. Platforms and advertisers simply ask us to trust them.
We found that platforms are beginning to provide information about a narrowly defined category of advertising: “issues, elections or politics”. This shows that there is no technical reason to keep information about other types of publicity public. On the contrary, the platforms choose to keep it a secret.
Put the ad back in public view
When digital advertising can be systematically monitored, it will be possible to hold digital platforms and marketers accountable for their business practices.
Our assessment of the transparency of advertising on digital platforms demonstrates that they are currently not observable or accountable to the public. Consumers, civil society, regulators and even advertisers all have an interest in ensuring a better public understanding of how digital platforms’ dark advertising models work.
The limited steps taken by platforms to create public records, particularly in the case of political advertising, demonstrate that change is possible. And the detailed advertising performance dashboards they offer advertisers illustrate that there are no technical barriers to accountability.