Successful digital marketing is a concept that hinges upon having a wealth of information. Today, social media has made big data an entirely different game. With lengthy disclosures and airtight agreements, social media companies have been able to mine the data on how you behave. Big data provides companies with insight to effectively market to you and millions of other social media users. Instagram, like its data-savvy parent company, Facebook, will now collect ages of new users in a widescale effort to combat harmful ads targeting minors. New users will be required to submit their age before joining Instagram. In contrast, existing users will have the option to share their age but will not be required to do so.
What This All Means
This grand sweeping shift is one that plays multiple positions. For starters, there's inherent goodness here. Instagram appears to have a desire to make its platform safer for its users. While ad targeting won't cease, the ads will be funneled through a much finer lens, reaching users of the appropriate age range. In essence, 13-year old IG users won't receive the same ads that 40-year IG users see.
In opposition, however, some feel Instagram is working to clean up a mess they (and others) created. With widespread social media disorders plaguing young and old users alike, much of this move to advanced data collection is a result of harsh targeting initiatives. There is, of course, the notion that Instagram and other platforms couldn't have known just how damaging social media could be if misused or without the proper restrictions. The exponential increase in social media engagement is unlike anything we've ever seen. So has its negative impact been adequately forecasted? Probably not. In a statement to Reuters, Instagram Head of Product Vishal Shah said that "Understanding how old people are is quite important to the work we're doing, not only to create age-appropriate experiences but to live up to our longstanding rule to not allow access to young people."
The Digital and Physical Triggers
The tipping point for improper targeting is best explained through the unruly tactics of JUUL, the infamous vaping company that brought its products to market in 2015. JUUL quickly made e-cigarettes cool and widely accessible to young people. It took legendary parties and rock-solid marketing to glamorize vaping as a healthy option to cigarettes.
In the years that followed, JUUL and vaping became ubiquitous. You'd see vaping advertisements everywhere, and many of them featured models not much older than high schoolers. But as swift as the cultural phenomena rose, reports of its harmful effects begin to reverberate nearly as wide. Then came the bountiful pile of lawsuits, many of which are still in litigation with hopes to ban vaping in several states and prohibit its marketing to minors. Earlier this week, the New York Times reported that The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, along with select state agencies have reported 2,172 lung injury cases and 43 deaths associated with vaping. Moreover, 120 of the injured parties were under 18. Staggering figures like this are largely linked to e-cigarette targeting ads.
But JUUL isn't the only culprit. Actor Jameela Jamil has called out celebrities for promoting the harmful usage of "detox teas." Irresponsible promotion of unregulated dietary items like detox teas to young women has created unhealthy beauty standards and amplified sickness due to improper use of said supplements. Jamil, speaking to her issues with detox teas stated on Twitter that they left her with "digestion and metabolism problems for life." Since then, she's been a champion for both women's rights and responsible social media marketing practices. Facebook has also cited gambling, alcohol, and birth control among the ads this age requirement is meant to prohibit. The globalization of e-sports has made gambling online as easy as double-clicking to like a photo. Alcohol and birth control ads circulating throughout Instagram place underaged users in imminent danger without age-appropriate ad targeting.
Hazardous targeting practices didn't begin with the influx of social media. It didn't even start over the past 30 to 40 years, accounting for more than the full lifespan of Gen-Z. Targeting is as old as business itself. Age-old industries like pharmaceuticals, tobacco, alcohol, and even certain corners of the beauty industry have been known to lean into these crafty practices to identify ideal consumers. They each stand to benefit from purchasing this information from Instagram. The information allows them to directly target consumers based on hyper-specific criteria (like affinities based on groups they follow or liked posts). While primarily an ethics and privacy issue, this approach to business growth strategy is the very foundation of free enterprise. Big businesses pooling and purchasing data is commonplace in every industry. If Instagram – which reports over 1 billion users – begins providing brands with age-appropriate targeting metrics, it could mark a complete paradigm shift in the age of digital marketing.
Unpacking Instagram's move to collect age demographics mostly falls on understanding the social currency in promoting digital wellness and the financial merits of housing data. Instagram is cleverly managing both. Investing in mental stability as it relates to social media is to be applauded. Instagram's restrictive measures to block underage users from potentially damaging their premature psyche is admirable and should inspire others to make similar adjustments. Moreover, managing ad targeting will limit the negative impact largely inflicted through ad distribution. It remains to be seen if Instagram's data collection will do more damage than good. Much of this depends on how they choose to share this information – which is well within their rights. Rights are one thing, business ethics are another.