Instead of picketing outside company headquarters, an advocacy group is using Facebook ads to try to influence people whose profiles identify them as employees of Freddie Mac or JPMorgan Chase.
The anti-foreclosure ad campaign, which launches today, asks Freddie and Chase employees to talk to their CEOs about a veteran -- a former Marine -- who's facing eviction in California.
The ad that targets Freddie Mac employees features a small picture of CEO Charles Haldeman's face, and the message, "Freddie Mac did what???? Freddie Mac is evicting a former Marine who's been trying to pay his mortgage. Tell CEO Haldeman to work out a fair deal with him!" according to a copy of the ad provided by Pugh.
The JPMorgan Chase ad is similar, but with a Chase logo instead of an executive's face.
We've contacted Freddie Mac and JP Morgan Chase spokespeople for comment, and also reached out to Freddie Mac and JPMorgan Chase employees on Facebook. If you've seen one of these ads, please let us know.
Targeted online advertising is nothing new. (As anyone who has changed their Facebook status to "engaged" can tell you, a simple update can bring a deluge of new ads.) But political campaigns and advocacy groups are increasingly adopting the same microtargeting tactics that companies use.
Rick Perry's campaign, for instance, targeted faith-focused ads to people in Iowa who listed themselves as Christians on Facebook, and ads featuring his wife to the state's female conservatives, Politico reported.
According to FEC data, Endorse Liberty, a super PAC that supports Ron Paul, has led the way on Facebook expenditures, spending a total of $241,508 through January 2012.
And it's not just Facebook and Google where campaigns and activists are doing microtargeting. The music site Pandora announced last year that it would be selling political ad space targeted to the zip codes of particular listeners, the Wall Street Journal reported.
There's nothing inherently problematic about targeted ads. Campaigns have been using direct mail to target particular voters for decades. Digital targeting can be a cost-effective way of spending advertising dollars, especially for smaller groups, like Rebuild the Dream, which sees the ads as a great way to get more bang for their buck in terms of reaching their intended audience. (The group also launched a special donation drive specifically for the Facebook ad buy.) ProPublica even used Facebook ads to try to find sources for our 2009 series, When Caregivers Harm.
But as the ability to use data to reach particular people grows more sophisticated, targeting risks crossing privacy lines, as demonstrated by a recent New York Times article on how Target knew a teenage customer was pregnant before her father did.
What's clear is that if all this microtargeting translates into electoral gains, the scale and sophistication of these efforts will continue to grow, and the data science that gained traction in 2008 will become a regular part of campaigning. In the meantime, the Obama campaign's already substantial data team continues to hire statistical modeling analysts and analytics engineers.
The increasing ease and flexibility of online targeting also raises new questions about how politicians are presenting themselves to different audiences, how much campaigns need to tell their supporters about the personal information they collect -- and what will happen to the massive databases of voter information collected during the 2012 presidential campaign. Will they be sold? Passed on to other politicians?
Rebuild the Dream, which focuses on economic issues, was launched by MoveOn.org in 2011, but has been independent since January, Pugh said. The group's president is former Obama green jobs adviser Van Jones.
Pugh worked on the Obama campaign's digital analytics team in 2008 while also trying to finish a Ph.D. dissertation in robotics, and later did similar work for the Democratic National Committee. He said he was not sure what kind of reaction the ads would receive.
"I would imagine that people are fairly used to targeted ads at this point," he said. But while people who work in politics and advocacy may be used to receiving Facebook ads targeting specific causes, "It's hard to know in advance how unusual it will seem to the employees of Freddie Mac and JP Morgan Chase."