Computer screen with "Create an Ad screen on Facebook" prompt
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The Australian Ad Observatory uncovering the hidden world of targeted advertising

Author Kathy Nickels
Date 23 March 2023

Millions of Australians are exposed to online advertising every day as they use social media and browse the internet. Advertisers on these platforms target audiences using a mix of data and profile information gathered from our activities online, but there is little publicly available knowledge about who is being targeted by which advertisers.

The Australian Ad Observatory project conducted at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision-Making and Society (ADM+S) is working to understand the hidden world of advertising by asking volunteers to donate their Facebook ads.

Professor Daniel Angus, one of the Chief Investigators on the project, says the problem with online advertising is that it is hidden from public view, and so it may break the rules that have been put in place to prevent consumer harm, without being noticed.

“We are seeing ads that have been able to slip through the net because humans aren’t involved in making judgements,” he says. 

“The concern there is that if these ads can slip through the net, what other forms of advertising are also making their way through that, that maybe perhaps in violation of existing codes and practices?”

Over the past year more than 2,000 volunteers have donated their ads to the Australian Ad Observatory. 

This research benefits our understanding of platform-based advertising and is enabling independent research into the role that algorithmically targeted advertising plays in society.  

Online Casinos (ABC)

The ABC recently partnered with the Australian Ad Observatory to find gambling ads that were illegally targeting Australians on Facebook. This report asks who should be responsible for monitoring illegal online advertising and whether advertising rules can be better enforced by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACAM).  

Read more:  Online casinos based offshore are illegally targeting Australians on Facebook. Who is responsible?

Image of Tweet by David Pocock: "Most ads are dark ads, so there is limited visibility in what is appearing in the feeds of Australians, including young Australians. This could just be the tip of the iceberg"

The issue of gambling advertising was raised in parliament this week by Senator David Pocock who asked whether the government was aware that Australians are being exposed, on their social media feeds, to illegal advertisements from online casinos?

Senator Watt, currently representing the Minister for Communications, said “Australians are  concerned about the growing proliferation of gambling advertising on online platforms. There are of course particular concerns when it comes to the risk around those advertisements being accessed by children.”

“There are additional concerns about the risk of online gambling advertisements to the adult population as well.”

“The government does recognise there is ongoing community concern about harms associated with online gambling, and that’s exactly why we have established an inquiry into online gambling and its impacts on those experiencing gambling harm.”

“Greenwashing” Advertising (CPRC)

Through the Australian Ad Observatory, the Consumer Policy Research Centre (CPRC) has undercovered online advertisements that use vague and misleading environmental and sustainability claims in their messaging to consumers.
Findings from this research will be used to inform regulators and policy makers about addressing unsubstantiated green claims.

Read more: Research investigates “greenwashing” advertising on social media

Alcohol Advertising (FARE)
The Ad Observatory project will be working with the Foundation for Alcohol Research & Education (FARE) to provide further analysis on the content of alcohol advertisements on social media.

A recent report released by FARE revealed that 39,820 distinct alcohol ads were placed on Facebook and Instagram last year, often combined with a button prompting users to “shop now”.

Through a search of Meta’s ad library, FARE found that big brands placed an average of 765 alcohol ads each week on the Meta platforms.

The report Alcohol advertising on social media: a 1-year snapshot, found that alcohol advertising on Instagram and Facebook is intrinsically linked to the online sale and delivery of alcohol directly into the home.

Meta’s ad library enabled insight into the amount and type of content being distributed by alcohol advertisers on Meta platforms, however it failed to provide information on advertising targeting, spend and reach of advertisements (except for political advertisements).

By partnering with the Australian Ad Observatory, FARE will further it’s investigation into alcohol advertising to develop a holistic understanding of alcohol marketing on these platforms, including understanding how often people are exposed to these advertisements and the ways in which people are being targeted with alcohol advertising on these platforms.

Read more: Alcohol companies ply community with 40,000 alcohol advertisements a year on Facebook and Instagram

Alongside the work with ABC, CPRC and FARE, the Australian Ad Observatory project will be using the ad collection to investigate consumer finance advertising, and advertising of unhealthy foods.

The Australian Ad Observatory has already collected over 700,000 advertisements from 2,000 volunteers, but is still looking for more people to sign up. A large pool of diverse participants of different ages, backgrounds and from different parts of Australia will help us better understand how particular groups in society are being targeted with particular kinds of ads.

To find out more and join the project visit The Australian Ad Observatory