‘Lose 12kg in two weeks’: Why Facebook must get rid of these dangerous and extreme weight loss ads

They are neither relevant nor appropriate to any audience - but simply targeted at vulnerable women

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During Eating Disorders week I spent the morning researching anorexia nervosa and exploring pro-ana websites as part of my work at Manchester Mind.

It was a troubling experience browsing site after site rammed with under generated starvation tips and forums where young women exchanged mirror shots of themselves at angles that emphasized their bones poking through perilously thin flesh.

Exhausted by the process, by lunchtime I intended to flick off my brain and flick on Facebook hoping to be distracted by pictures of sneezing kittens and dogs in sunglasses. Instead I was struck by the targeted banner adverts that appeared on my personal Facebook page. The blinking squares that lined my profile were, without exception, advertising products that promised extreme and rapid weight loss. They made ludicrous claims (see gallery above) that the already troublingly thin celebrities such as Cheryl Cole and Victoria Beckham had lost 12kg (nearly two stone) in two weeks using methods that could be found on their websites.

My initial reaction was outrage; it seemed that my browsing behavior had influenced the appearance of these ads.  But I was equally outraged when I realised that it was just as likely to be my status as a woman in her mid-20s with a new string of ‘likes’ relating to eating disorders and weight loss on my profile.

Facebook claims that it does not use cookies to inform targeted advertising campaigns, merely using a users demographic, friends, ‘likes’ and sinisterly ambiguous ‘anonymous or aggregate data’. And indeed, all the women between the ages of 16 and 30 I asked said that their Facebook page is, to a greater or lesser extent, littered with these ads. This might sound preferable to the overtly exploitative methods employed by the likes of Google Ads, which admits to using browsing behaviour to inform its advertisers, but the ubiquity of social media in the life of very young women makes Facebook a particular concern.

As a psychologically stable adult it is easy to see that the claims made by these adverts are nonsense, but they are not targeted at psychologically stable adults. They are targeted at vulnerable women seeking the quickest route to emaciation. Furthermore, Facebook is accessed by almost all 13-18 year-olds, an impressionable demographic and those most vulnerable to eating disorders.

All advertising latches on to our insecurities but this has previously been limited large, regulated companies appealing general societal attitudes, not unregulated quackery addressing the specific triggers of those with a predisposition to serious mental illness. I have been a young women; I have experienced the pressure to display my moral character and social worth in pounds and inches. I have fasted and low-carbed and pill-popped in an attempt to boost my self worth. Of course this is not the fault of Facebook. It is a deeply ingrained problem, but allowing advertisers to exploit this is entirely the fault of Facebook.

Facebook’s own guidelines state ‘All components of an ad, including any text, images, or other media, must be relevant and appropriate to the product or service being offered and the audience viewing the ad’, all I am asking is that they implement their own policy and remove these ads. Extreme weight loss is neither relevant nor appropriate to any audience, least of all those who are statistically most likely to suffer from a devastating mental illness.

They also state that ‘ads for regulated goods and services (e.g. alcohol and gambling), must abide by all applicable laws, regulations, and industry codes’. Weight loss cranks are shamefully unregulated, but the NICE clinical guidelines are unambiguous on the management of overweight and obese children and adults (to whom these ads are ostensibly marketed) are certainly do not include women of healthy weight or below shedding two stone in two weeks by any method let alone ‘using this one crazy tip’.

Facebook, and indeed all purveyors of targeted ads, take pride in the fact that they are woven seamlessly into the fabric of clutter advertising. Jim Anderson, COO of ViTrue social media management claims that targeting is “not going to be discernible to most consumers. Most people won't notice any difference. The inability to discern what is targeted is actually what makes these campaigns so insidious. Targeting ads at a particular demographic constructs a reality where young women have their latent insecurities about body image confirmed.

Eating disorders are not caused by adverts for diet products but they are exacerbated by the images that present weight loss as synonymous with beauty and social standing. The fact that body shape is still considered an indication of moral character and rapid weight loss as penitence for over-indulging reflects badly on society.

The frequent exploitation of this message confirms an uncomfortable truth about the advertising industry. We cannot solve these problems overnight but what we can do is insist that these parasitic campaigns feeding on the anxiety of young women are stopped. We can refuse the accept Facebook’s stock excuse that targeted ads can be deactivated by a complex setting on one’s profile. The onus is not on the vulnerable women to avert their eyes, it is on Facebook to remove these ads.

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