Targeted Facebook Ad Goes Horribly Wrong After Newtown School Shooting

It's not just the mainstream press that gets social media wrong. Sometimes social media gets social media wrong, too.

Facebook user Peter Thoeny brings this to our attention.

The targeted ad appears next to a status update by Thoeny, who says "I am mad as hell about this." He took to Facebook to write that the issue behind the shooting was solvable, but not by a wholesale ban on guns. He went on to outline some specific, level-headed ideas. Then he saw the ad. And he posted a comment: "This is a sickening and offensive targeted ad I just got on Facebook! These violent computer games are IMHO one of the MAIN REASONS we have school shootings like this. Thanks for listening to my rant."

Below, an image of Thoeny's annotated version of the ad.




We've written to ask Facebook how it handles these situations and whether there is any institutional procedure for dealing with this kind of ad adjacency. When we hear back, we'll update this post.

UPDATE: Facebook tells us: "The ad in this screenshot is targeted to the user based on demographics and interests. In this case, it’s a male-oriented video game so the targeting criteria could have been as broad as Males 18+. Targeting is not related to the content of your newsfeed and this ad is not shown in connection with the newsfeed story at all."

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64 Comments

  • Ms. Very Stupid

    The reality is that ALL companies that use targeted marketing were kind of caught off guard by the tragedy. ABC plays ads on their videos - all of them. They did the same thing with the news videos of the tragedy. On each site that uses ads, they still displayed ads on the pages that provided news about the shooting. That is what happens when computer algorithms handle the display of ads. There is no sensitivity rating that tells a computer not to display a particular ad because someone might be offended or it might be deemed insensitive. The guy who was upset about this should be angry that weapons are so pervasive in the US that someone is injured every single day in this country while other countries do not have the same type of violence. He should be upset that there was yet another shooting at a school. He should be upset that a mother could not control her son. He should be upset with a person who thinks his way of getting back at the world is to kill children. He should not be upset with Facebook. You can't blame Facebook for an ad that pops up at the wrong time. The bigger issue is the violence.

  • ConcernedInternetCitizen

    boy this really is a tragedy.  thank you for bringing it to my attention that even as we approach 2013 there are still idiots like Peter Thoeny who don't use adblock.  truly sad.

  • Guest

    I think you guys should delete this article, it is pointless. This is just a coincidence and its shameful that it is still up. Poor journalism and poor research. If you would not been so quick to post and had found out that this ad is targeted by demographics and interests and not the content on your timeline, would you have still posted it?

  • WML

    If facebook targetd ads based on content of a post they'd be deplored for invading member privacy further.  Mature, level headed readers would chalk this up to an unfortunate coincidence and stay focused on the issue at hand.

  • Chris Foley AKA @foleypod

    In response to  's most recent comment: 
    I believe that notion is utterly ridiculous and puts too much social responsibility on the ad channel, in this case Facebook.  Facebook (or YouTube, Twitter, any channel running ads, etc) would have to dedicate a team of people to watching a global news aggregate every day looking for various incidents for the sole purpose of then pausing any and all ads that might offend, because the ad could be construed as "insensitive" given the incident in question. "Ooops, car crash on the Bay Bridge, 9 dead!  Quickly!  Pause ALL CAR ADS right now!" 
     
    No, that's stupid, and such a policy would put the platform in breech of contract with their advertisers.  And anyway, really?  What would the parameters of that program look like?  

    Moving on.. 
    It's been established in this thread (and is obvious to anyone who does SM marketing for a living) that this case was absolutely coincidental.  Facebook's ad platform simply doesn't work that way.If anyone has a civic responsibility in ensuring that platform users don't become offended and/or get their little feelings hurt it is the advertisers themselves.  

    ie:  "Hey, everyone, another mass murder just occurred.  Gunman just wasted a grade school class, maybe WE should take it upon ourselves to pause our ads for our new first-person shooter game for a few days.  Or forever, maybe." 

    The very title of this article: "Targeted Facebook Ad Goes Horribly Wrong After Newtown School Shooting" VERY CLEARLY shows off Fast Company's motives with regards to posting the article.  

    This "reporting" sensationalizes an incident (the ad's appearence, NOT the shooting) which wasn't remotely newsworthy, and it was very clearly written by an SEO specialist.  

    Hence, I declare Fast Company guilty of insensitive linkbaiting, which is precisely what your article accuses Facebook of.

  • << Work from home, $15/h, link

     I do not know what I may appear to the world; but
    to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea shore
    and diverting himself and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier
    shell that ordinary while the greater ocean of truth lay all un

  • Ryan Berg

    First of all, way to go Fastcompany for rushing a news piece out the door amidst the buzz and excitement of a tragic event without taking the time to thoroughly check it for accuracy... and then posting an article about how dumb news organizations are for doing this exact same thing (article on Ryan Lanza misidentification). I guess if anything this says a lot about human nature in these kinds of situations. Take a breath news people, I can wait a day or two for you to get the facts straight. My world will not implode. 

    Second, if you're offended by a random video game ad with the picture of a gun you need to get some perspective on life. Do you really expect facebook to have a "tragic event algorithm" that censors out offensive images during times of emotional stress? Oh, we don't want to add a straw that will break your poor little emotional back. Come on. Get angry about something that matters. Heck, be offended by violent video games if that floats your boat. But don't misdirect your emotional frustration at something that makes absolutely no sense. Or, you know, don't. Complain to facebook to create a filter like that. I mean, hey, why not create an environment that insulates you from the real world even more than it already does?

  • Tyler Gray

    Facebook isn't "the world." It's a brand. A service. And as such, it has a responsibility to customers. They'll do their own calculation about whether this is an isolated incident or a systematic problem. But regarding the "tragic event algorithm" you mentioned, Google already has something similar, it seems. Someone tweeted me a pic of a Google Ad that put a hunting gear ad next to news about the school shooting. But by morning, it was gone. I'm still checking in with Google about this, but it may be that they have pretty much that exact kind of "tragic event algorithm" you describe. Similarly, we turned off all ads to the two stories we published related to the shooting--by hand (though we're hardly dealing with the complexity Facebook handles). Finally, maybe consider whether it's accurate to pit a mistake (admitted) about Facebook's targeted ad tech that lasted less than an hour before being changed and corrected to a mistake falsely labeling the wrong guy a child mass murderer--a guy who, it turns out, is the brother of the actual person believed to be the shooter (a guy who just lost most of his family in a single, horrible day). 

  • Ryan Berg

    I think comparing one inaccuracy against another is missing the point, Tyler. The point is that there is obviously a wave of emotion people experience with tragic events like these that distorts their mental clarity and creates a false sense of urgency. And maybe that's something people in your position should be more aware of, so they're actually contributing value to a situation like this instead of just more useless noise. Oh, and as far as correcting mistakes - you might want to take another look at the headline for this article.

    As far as filtering ad content, I admit it's a nuanced issue. And obviously things are heading in the direction of much higher levels of custom tailoring whether I think it's dumb to be offended by a video game ad during a tragic event like this or not. Hopefully the sole aim of that customization isn't simply to not offend and to increase conversions, though. We really are creating a "world" for ourselves. And what that world looks like will shape us in lots of subtle ways. I find the idea of this kind of censoring very interesting. Instead of turning off all the negative images and messages we receive constantly on any other day, maybe now is the best time ever to SEE them and become more aware of how they're influencing our lives. 

  • Ryan Berg

    VV Come on dude, this whole article including the headline implies that Facebook is targeting ads based on the content of the user's post. And then at the end you say, "Oh by the way, none of this is accurate." THAT is the useless noise I was talking about. The entire premise of your article was flawed from the beginning. If you had waited a few days, fact checked things a little more closely, and thought through the issues more thoroughly you could have written an article that addressed the debate you're trying to have now in a much clearer way. And you wouldn't have come across as piggy backing off a tragic event to sensationalize a comparatively unimportant issue. Which is why you have comment after comment saying how disappointed they are with Fastcompany in regards to this article. I hope you're just as concerned with that feedback as the feedback Facebook is getting about offensive ads. 

  • Tyler Gray

    Yeah, there's parts of this I agree with. (Not the headline part, though.) The idea that we should get over this sort of adjacency... that's something I'd tend to agree with. I'm not arguing the case for being offended or not here, though. I'm suggesting that it's interesting to discuss whether Facebook is considering whether or not it's offending its users. They think of so much. Surely they're thinking about this. So either they've thought about it and decided it's not worth doing anything about (something I'd love to hear them say--and I've asked), or they just haven't considered it, which would be astounding. Whatever the case, none of this is useless noise, not when it involves a company worth something like $80 billion. It's not even noise in the wake of this horrific event. There are implications in this event for a business that traffics in the discussions around the event. Don't forget that, above all, Facebook is a business. More and more, it's an ad business. And the number one priority for someone trying to sell you something is not to offend. Maybe there's no way around it, but I'd like to hear Facebook say that if so. 

  • LianneCarlaS

    Advertisers are responsible for the adverts they post and have the power to instantly go inside their ad centre and press pause, yes Facebook could have also pulled the plug on all ads but those advertisers who are using such ads could have gone online and in a matter of minutes accessed their ad centre and hit the pause button.

    Want to know what's really annoying me? Facebooks suggestions in my status text box. "Say happy holidays to your fans" "What's going on for the holidays" "Reach more people these holidays with promoted posts" I'm struggling to think of the right words to put out there and they are telling me to be happy and buy more ads

  • Vanyel_kane

    Linkbait hh? Now I'm going to unsubscribe from you guys. This was the pathetic article I've read here.

  • Terry Chamberlain

    like, what ad would have been ok there if such targetting was even possible?

  • Anjali Mullany

    That's a fair point. pointed out to me that some outlets were running pre-roll advertising before video about this horrendous crime. I don't know how I feel about that. On the other hand, commercials have run during news broadcasts about awful events for years. For journalists, for advertisers, for social networks, for all of us, the Internet is posing so many new ethical questions -- so quickly. Which is why I really like conversations like the ones taking place beneath this article.

  • Rob

    And that is why you're the editor...to rescue Tyler from a defensive position that is alienating readers even further with his replies to comments.  What you describe above is a valid point of discussion, but that's not the way it is presented in this article.  If you don't understand why everyone below is a little put off, it's because it completely appears is if Tyler's title is simply fishing for views and clicks, and trying to capitalize on the tragedy.  It is a worthy conversation, just not right now, and certainly not in the context of blaming Facebook with a stretch of an argument.  Even you stated it is an industry problem, so why attack FB on the very day of the tragedy?  Technology is moving in this direction and it will get better, but at least let the dust settle out of respect.