I wrote the following in a daily beemail and got back 20 replies, approximately 18 of which were gently explaining that I was being an idiot and that there’s not an ethical issue here (other than 1 person who said advertising in general is ethically dubious, admitting that’s a pretty extreme view):
Holly and Bee and I were discussing an interesting question about advertising today. Platforms like Twitter make it easy to pick demographics like “males 25-34” which on first blush might be a good one for Beeminder. Embarrassingly far into the conversation it occurred to me how messed up that is and I decided we should refuse to use protected categories like gender for ad targeting. Using things like household income seems like a business necessity though.
Like there should be a fair business case for any targeting we do. Having money, sure. Speaking English, yes (maybe even targeting only native speakers even though that excludes many people it shouldn’t, because the better your English the more likely you are to make sense of Beeminder’s hypernerdy webcopy). But having a penis, no, there’s no way to justify that even if the correlation exists. Like we can pick all sorts of other things that might (unfortunately) be proxies for gender like being a software engineer – there are plenty of reasons to treat software engineers as a coveted demographic – but targeting men because that yields lots of software engineers or whatever is bad.
Then it occurred to me to wonder what we’re potentially paying for this ethical stance. Like if, hypothetically, software engineers are a gold mine and everyone else is dead weight but there’s just no way to target them specifically, it might be pretty tempting to just target males. It could even, probably hypothetically, be the case that ads are only profitable by targeting males, if there’s really no way to get at the attribute you really care about that happens to correlate a lot with gender.
So, yeah, interesting stuff. Super curious what your thoughts are and if there are aspects of this I’m not thinking of, or not thinking of the right way.
PS: Holly clarifies that the analytics suggest 70% of current users are male.
There were a lot of great insights in the responses that I’m encouraging everyone to repeat for posterity in this thread. My conclusion is that what I called an ethical stance is still a good idea but just because we expect it to actually work. If the numbers say otherwise, it’s ok to do what the numbers say to do. [UPDATE: with just a couple caveats as articulated by @adamwolf below]