Facebook could prevent age-discriminating job ads if it wanted to

The ways in which Facebook’s advertising tools can be misused — and the fact that Facebook doesn’t guard them against such misuse — continue to come to light.

Facebook and major companies including Amazon, Goldman Sachs, Target and Verizon used the social network’s ad-targeting options to run job-recruitment ads that were only targeted to people in certain age groups, according to a report published jointly by ProPublica and The New York Times last week.

At issue is whether the ads — which were intentionally meant to reach people of certain ages and thereby meant to exclude people of other ages from seeing them — would be in violation of laws prohibiting companies from discriminating based on age in their hiring practices.

Some of the advertisers cited in the report appear to believe they were wrong in targeting their job ads by age.

“The use of the targeted age-range selection on the Facebook ad was frankly a mistake on our part given our lack of experience using that platform for job postings and not a feature we will use again,” a HubSpot spokesperson told ProPublica and The New York Times.

“We recently audited our recruiting ads on Facebook and discovered some had targeting that was inconsistent with our approach of searching for any candidate over the age of 18,” an Amazon spokesperson told the publications.

Facebook: age-based targeting should be “used responsibly”

For its part, Facebook disagrees with the report’s claim that it enabled companies, including itself, to discriminate against people based on age. “Used responsibly, age-based targeting for employment purposes is an accepted industry practice and for good reason: it helps employers recruit and people of all ages find work,” Facebook’s VP of ads Rob Goldman wrote in a company blog post published on Wednesday.

The use of Facebook’s age-targeting options to exclude an audience based on their demographics — and potentially in violation of the law — mirrors an example from last year when ProPublica revealed how Facebook’s multicultural affinity targeting options, which can be used as a proxy for an audience’s ethnicity, could be used to violate federal housing laws prohibiting race-based discrimination. However, Facebook has taken a different tack in responding to the latest issue.

Instead of instituting a system to prevent advertisers from excluding an audience in violation of the law, as it did with the multicultural affinity targeting options, Facebook is continuing to allow companies to exclude people from seeing employment ads based on their ages.

Facebook’s position appears to be that targeting employment ads by age enables companies to customize their ad creative to specific audience segments, allowing them to make the job more appealing to the audience it’s intended to reach. For example, a retailer seeking part-time employees during the holiday season may do well to tailor the ads to better appeal to prospective applicants. College students may be more likely to click on the ad if it positions the job as an opportunity to make some money while home between semesters, whereas senior citizens may be more likely to click if it’s situated as an opportunity to supplement their retirement income.

However, Facebook also appears to be counting on advertisers to create versions of these employment ads to appeal to each and every age group, so that none are excluded and age-discrimination laws are not violated. As the “used responsibly” phrase in Goldman’s response indicates, Facebook is leaving the law-abiding responsibility up to the advertiser. And Facebook believes it’s within its rights to do so, in the same way that an auto manufacturer is not held responsible when someone who owns one of its cars drives that car into a telephone pole and knocks out the power in the surrounding neighborhood.

How Facebook could safeguard against age-based discrimination

But just because Facebook can absolve itself of any responsibility, it doesn’t mean it should. Facebook has the power to hold advertisers to a higher standard. In the same way that Facebook can prohibit race-based discrimination for housing ads — at least eventually — it could bar age-based discrimination for employment ads if it adopted that as its policy.

Instead of disabling advertisers from targeting employment ads by age altogether, Facebook could ensure they run ads for all ages. The aforementioned hypothetical retailer could still run an ad aimed at 18- to 22-year-olds, but only as part of a set of ads that would span all other age groups. In addition to the ad aimed at college students, the retailer could create one intended for all ages that doesn’t employ age-based targeting, or it could craft several that appeal to specific other age groups but combine to canvass all ages. If it adopted a policy like this, Facebook would only allow this campaign to run once the retailer had configured it to encompass people of all ages.

As simple a solution as that may seem, it comes with a caveat that would kneecap its likelihood of adoption by a capitalistic enterprise like Facebook: It makes it harder for companies to give Facebook their money. Instead of producing a single ad and paying for it to be aimed at a specific age group, the company would need to create an array of ads for all age groups and pay for the additional reach. As a result, the advertiser may just as likely opt to forego Facebook and have them run somewhere that may more loosely approximate an audience’s age and less explicitly discriminate.

About The Author

Tim Peterson
Tim Peterson, Third Door Media's Social Media Reporter, has been covering the digital marketing industry since 2011. He has reported for Advertising Age, Adweek and Direct Marketing News. A born-and-raised Angeleno who graduated from New York University, he currently lives in Los Angeles. He has broken stories on Snapchat's ad plans, Hulu founding CEO Jason Kilar's attempt to take on YouTube and the assemblage of Amazon's ad-tech stack; analyzed YouTube's programming strategy, Facebook's ad-tech ambitions and ad blocking's rise; and documented digital video's biggest annual event VidCon, BuzzFeed's branded video production process and Snapchat Discover's ad load six months after launch. He has also developed tools to monitor brands' early adoption of live-streaming apps, compare Yahoo's and Google's search designs and examine the NFL's YouTube and Facebook video strategies.