The joy and horror of targeted Facebook ads

Why targeted ads are the most brutal owns

Examining the highly 2010s phenomenon of getting owned by the algorithm.


Dan Nosowitz was scrolling through Instagram when he saw it: an ad for a cooking device whose sole function was to heat up raclette cheese.

“I had to click through because I had no idea what it actually was,” he explains. “Finding out that an algorithm believed I would be interested in a discount ‘traditional Swiss-style electric cheese melter’ is sort of comfortably bumbling. It’s like watching a Roomba bonk into a wall.”

Whether the humor inherent in the ad comes from the fact that the gadget is so oddly specific, or because raclette is an incredibly high-maintenance cheese and therefore hardly a common grocery item for most people, is difficult to say. What we do know, however, is that the complicated set of algorithms that serve targeted ads on social media are the most brutal, most incisive owns of our time.

In Nosowitz’s case, he figures he likely saw the raclette warmer because he’s a food writer who Amazon surely knows has previously browsed cooking tools on its site. That’s because Amazon, Facebook, Instagram, and the rest of the internet track your every keystroke and will then use your history to show you things they think will make them money. So it’s no wonder that it feels so deeply personal when we get targeted ads for, say, “dressy sweatpants,” colonoscopies, underwear whose selling point is that they are easy to take off, preparing for your own funeral, or, somehow the biggest attack of all: tickets to Jagged Little Pill: The Musical.