Homotech :: Is Manhunt Selling Your Sexual Orientation?
The next time you log onto Manhunt.net, you might keep in mind that those men you’re chatting with aren’t the only ones interested in your profile. With no announcement to its members or to the press, Online Buddies, the parent company of the hugely popular hook-up website, has launched an ad agency to help digital marketers reach Manhunt users after they’ve logged off.
Men visiting Manhunt are automatically tagged as gay, an attribute that follows them as they look at the newspaper, order a pizza or download a new song. It’s part of an exploding trend wherein marketers target whatever they’re hawking to specific demographics.
Why should you care? Maybe you don’t. But many believe that a person’s sexual orientation shouldn’t be something made available to any marketer who asks.
Manhunt is calling its new advertising offshoot Gay Audience. Its website states its purpose: to allow advertisers to reach gay men beyond websites offering gay-related content. The company boasts that an ad agency can reach men when they’re visiting a mainstream website such as Huffington Post using a retargeting technology called "audience extension."
For marketers who want to reach affluent gay men, it’s a pretty enticing proposition. As we’ve become more accepted, we’ve also become a more desired part of the advertising market. Going to the New York Times’ site, say, and seeing a gay-friendly ad for a car or travel destination is another way for marketers to get to this coveted audience -especially since many national advertisers shy away from sites with overtly sexual content or controversial opinions.
Unlike the universally gay-themed advertising on LGBT websites, however, it’s necessary for someone to have "tagged" you as a gay man before the ads can follow you around the Web. And the technology being used at Manhunt is part of the Big Brother aspect of the Web that has concerned privacy advocates for years.
Department store magnate John Wanamaker famously complained that he knew half of his ads weren’t reaching people, he just didn’t know which half. These marketers are taking Wanamaker’s dictum to the nth degree by reaching you all over the place.
Via Internet cookies, a brand "targets" people that visit its website and then "retargets" them as they surf the Web with ads that target their demographic. The thinking is that, if you didn’t buy the product or at least click through the ad the first time around, it will eventually get under your skin enough so that you will be intrigued. Companies like Manhunt partner with giant websites or ad networks that bundle traffic across multiple websites in order to follow their users and target ads to them.
Some of the companies involved in the practice might surprise you. They include Microsoft, Google, AOL and Amazon, as well as smaller players. A company called Audience Science lists sample profiles it has gleaned from consumers. Some are pretty general - "Avid Shoppers," "Retirees." But others get pretty specific - "SUV Buyers," "Xbox Enthusiasts."
The 2012 Berkeley Privacy Census revealed that tracking consumers across the Web is increasing dramatically. Of the 25,000 most popular websites in the study, almost 90 percent dropped cookies.
Because it’s so ubiquitous and people visit it so often, Facebook has become the poster child for lack of privacy controls. The consequences go beyond being bombarded by ads for a particular product or service. According to a 2011 study by Consumer Reports, seven million Facebook users have reported that, in the last year alone, they experienced a privacy breach, ranging from unauthorized log-ins to their accounts to some being harassed or threatened. Not surprisingly, a recent Associated Press-CNBC poll found more than half of the Facebook users questioned don’t trust the company to keep their information private.
Of course, most of us get a pretty good indication that we’re being followed when we see certain ad messages popping up repetitively. But for gay men and lesbians, there are larger, more serious issues involved.
As far back as 2010, when this technology was still relatively new, LGBT activists were shocked at the results of a research project spearheaded by Microsoft and the Max Planck Institute. Clicking on an ad - even one with absolutely no gay content or associations - immediately informed the marketer putting up the ad that the user was gay.
If that’s bad, then it’s even worse if advertisers are allowed to profile that user as gay and then follow them around the Internet. Blocking such potential privacy abuses has spawned policies by numerous mega-websites and networks prohibiting marketers from retargeting based on sexual orientation criteria.
For example, in response to a query about its practices, Google quickly shot off a policy statement about "What is prohibited: Sites that collect/store affirmative identification regarding sexual behavior or orientation from users cannot create remarketing lists using that sensitive information. Additionally, if the site is specifically aimed at users in a way where a visit to the site implies identification from the user, such as an online dating site specifically for users who identify as part of a sexual orientation or behavior group, it is not permitted."
AOL told EDGE that they never "target individuals based on sexual orientation" for remarketing purposes. Spokespeople at Microsoft and Yahoo confirmed that their remarketing products have comparable policies.
What about smaller players? EDGE contacted several companies under the guise of performing an audience extension exercise. One company did attempt to sell targeting based on sexual orientation, SpotXChange. Three others said they would not do so due to the sensitive nature of sexual orientation. Many others refused to comment or wouldn’t respond at all.
When EDGE contacted Manhunt’s Gay Audience under a similar guise, a rep there confirmed that clients are already availing themselves of the system, which the rep admitted retargets users gleaned from Manhunt.net.
The justification given was there are already "plenty of companies that do this. It’s nothing new." Online Buddies CFO Richard Scott told EDGE that he considers this type of retargeting fairly standard offering among large websites.
"This is an ancillary product," Scott said. "We’re not targeting people, we’re not directly selling information. It’s no different than what happens when you go to Facebook."
Facebook has publicly stated that it will only allow data about a person’s sexual orientation to be accessed inside Facebook itself.
Online Buddies then sent EDGE a formal statement that insisted that "retargeting campaigns have been around for a number of years, and are recognizable to anyone who has done a Google search for a product, only to see ads for that product later in their browsing session. Retargeting technology is now commonly used by just about every major online publisher."
Many of the ads you see on smaller gay-oriented websites were probably placed there by a company called the Gay Ad Network. It routinely fills ad inventory on Queerty, Real Jock, Instinct magazine, and many local gay newspapers, among others. The company has also recently launched a remarketing product that will target LGBT consumers outside their gay network via audience extension; they call the practice "Gay Audience Behavioral Targeting."
The company’s CEO, Mark Elderkin said, however, that Gay Ad Network does not itself profile individuals. Rather, it uses an outside source - perhaps one of those smaller companies we researched - to do the retargeting for them.
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