On Facebook under Settings, there’s a page in the Ads section where you can view your Ad Preferences. Most of this is fairly straightforward — choices about how you’ll allow ads and how advertisers target you based on things like what pages you’ve liked. But there’s one section there that will probably surprise you: a list of advertisers “Who use a contact list added to Facebook.”
Check yours out right now (I’ll wait, just try it).
According to the description, "These advertisers are running ads using a contact list they or their partner uploaded that includes info about you. This info was collected by the advertiser or their partner. Typically this information is your email address or phone number."
The list of Advertisers, a feature Facebook added for transparency, is incomprehensible to anyone who isn’t an expert in advertising (and even some who are!), and leads to the unsettling realization that, fuck, man, our data is out there and trafficked without our consent and being used by advertisers in ways we have no clue about.
Here’s mine. Me. A person who has lived in New York for 20 years. There’s a South Carolina real estate agent and car dealerships in Colorado, Arizona, Texas, Michigan, It makes absolutely no sense.
This list is long — you can hit “See More” to scroll past hundreds and hundreds of brand pages. What the hell, right? If you’re an adult in the US, you probably see a lot of car dealerships and real estate agents (more on that later) from all over the country. Even a former Facebook executive tweeted about how he was confused by seeing a list of random real estate agents and car dealers in cities he doesn’t even live near.
Welcome to the most bewildering — and most interesting — page in your Facebook settings: the list of brands that either have your data or have paid someone who has your data. This page is meant to offer Facebook users a glimpse at whose radar they may be on — which is good! But the reality is that this list is so confusing — why the heck does a Maserati dealership in Scottsdale, Arizona have my email or phone number? If they were any good at targeting ads, they could take one look at my location, occupation, or literally anything about me, and conclude there’s no way I’m buying a Maserati anytime soon.
It turns out this long list of advertisers represents several sides of digital advertising that extends beyond Facebook: traditional ad targeting, influencers and sponsored content, and advertisers on Facebook who leverage personal data from the giant data brokers.
1. Places where you’re actually a customer: The first group is what you’d expect to see. For example, mine has places I’ve shopped online, like Target and JetBlue, as well as web services I use, like Hulu, Venmo, and Fandango.
2. Sponcon influencers who post ads for a company that has your email: My list includes a bunch of pages for lifestyle bloggers who have done sponsored posts for ThirdLove bras. The thing is, I don’t follow any of these influencers — so why are they on my page? I had to think back: Once, I provided my email for a quiz to find my “true bra size” from ThirdLove. So when ThirdLove promoted a post by an influencer using a customer list (that I was now on), those influencers then appeared on my advertiser list. Confusing! No customer data is actually transferred between ThirdLove and the influencer, according to a representative for ThirdLove.
3. Businesses that pay data brokers for access to you: Here’s where things get spicy — companies that you’ve had no interaction with before but that have access to your data.
Until a few months ago, Facebook used large data brokers, like Acxiom and Oracle, as partners in its advertising platform to power its Partner Categories feature for advertisers. Basically, anonymized personal data from these data companies was baked into the Facebook Ad platform, accessible to advertisers from big digital marketing agencies to one-person businesses selling hand-knitted beer koozies.
The value of this tool, especially to businesses like local car dealerships and realtors, was that it imported another layer of data — previous home purchases, credit scores, shopping activity — beyond what could be found on a Facebook profile alone, so that advertisers who need data like that could get more precise with their targeting on Facebook. And car dealers and real estate agents need to branch out beyond their own customer lists simply because people don’t buy many houses or cars in a lifetime. Effective!
(Again, the third-party data was and is anonymized. The advertisers or their ad agencies never see your actual email or phone number, or even who you are. All that stuff is essentially scrambled between the data broker and Facebook.)
After the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook decided to kill Partner Categories. By late 2018, it no longer offered advertisers a feature to use all that juicy baked-in third-party data.
“There hasn’t been an industry hit as hard as automotive when Facebook lost their third-party data,” David Lemmon, an executive at the automotive marketing agency AutoSweet, told BuzzFeed News. “Dealerships panicked.”
Of course, this didn’t mean third-party data was impossible to use in Facebook advertising (also, all those data brokers still work with other platforms and companies). It just meant that now advertisers and their agencies had to work with an Oracle or Acxiom directly to use the custom audiences that the data brokers controlled.
And this is likely how a Maserati dealership in Scottsdale ended up on my advertisers “who use a contact list” page — its agency works with a data broker who has uploaded a massive contact list. Remember, the list shows advertisers who are using a contact list "they or their partner uploaded." Even though I’ll never actually see their ads, they show up on my Advertisers page due to this disclosure.
Of course, there are other ways advertisers can get my information too. “There are other third parties that dealers use, like Autotrader or Cars.com, that connect them with leads and shopper information, where they may have uploaded that into Facebook,” according to Matt Stoffel from 9 Clouds, a digital marketing agency that specializes in automotive.
If your Advertisers list seems surprising and confusing to you, you’re not alone. Even people I spoke with who work in automotive digital marketing were perplexed by what they saw. “I can’t figure out why, it’s just such random car dealers,” said Steve White, CEO of Clarivoy, a car marketing agency, as he looked over his own list of advertisers on his personal Facebook account.
The handful of real estate agents I spoke to were all using the same marketing agency to run their Facebook ads: a Venice Beach, California–based company called Ylopo. Ylopo did not respond to requests for comment.
Natasha Zingarello, a realtor in New Jersey, told BuzzFeed News that she had only recently hired Ylopo to do her Facebook advertisements, but was already unhappy. She had heard from several people from as far away as Texas that she was showing up in their Advertisers list.
Diana Renee, a realtor from Southern California, quit using Ylopo for this same reason. “I had just started using them in January, and I got a couple of complaints, and I don’t like that,” she said. “The idea that someone has your information is already creepy, and I don’t want to be a creepy realtor spamming someone on Facebook.”
Facebook removing third-party data was a pro-privacy move, and showing this page of advertisers is a great transparency measure. But this list of advertisers that use a contact list is a nightmare for any normal person to look at. It’s confusing (who?!), aggravating (how did they get my email or phone number?!), and disheartening (privacy is dead, everyone has my data, it’s a lost cause). It sheds some light on the dark and infinite universe of spam we exist in.
Facebook is aware this page is confusing, and told BuzzFeed News it intends to fix it in the near future. It is currently working on new ideas about how the page should look — perhaps bundling all the advertisers who use the same data broker together, for example, and separating advertisers with first-party data.
“We want people to know how their information is used for Facebook ads,” Joe Osborne, a Facebook representative told BuzzFeed News in a statement. “That’s why we just updated ‘Why am I seeing this ad’ with more details when businesses run ads using information from a customer list, like when it was uploaded or if they worked with marketing partners to run those ads. Soon we’ll improve Ad Preferences to more simply and easily display similar kinds of information.”
At the end of March, Facebook announced that it would share more information about why you see the ads you’re seeing, including details like whether a page is using an agency to run its ads for you. But these would only lift the veil on ads you’re seeing — not all the unknown instances where you’ve been swept into a basket for targeted advertising.
We all want to know how ads work, but this page is like turning over a rock and seeing a bunch of centipedes crawling underneath – but imagine you’ve never seen a bug before in your life, so you’re like, “What the heck IS this weird thing and why does it have so many legs?” Perhaps the least pleasant but most accurate answer to “Who has my data?” is simply, “You’re fucked.”