Facebook promoted ads targeting teens with low self-esteem (update: not really)

It's accused of being exploitative, even if it meant well.

David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

It won't shock you to hear that Facebook customizes the ads you see -- in some cases, it's vital. However, the social network's Australian office appears to have pushed that personalization too far. The Australian has learned (subscription only) through a leak that Facebook was touting its ability to target teens with ads based on their feelings, including when self-esteem is low -- say, when they're feeling "stupid," "worthless" or like a "failure." It did promote ego boosts in those moments (such as "body confidence"), but it's hard to deny the exploitative nature of selling products to teens at their most vulnerable.

Facebook hasn't said whether or not this ad model has been used outside Australia, but it was quick to apologize when asked by The Australian for comment. The company is investigating the "process failure," it says, and plans to take "disciplinary and other processes as appropriate."

This doesn't mean that Facebook violated the law, either in Australia or elsewhere. The leaked document only talks about aiming ads at teens 14 years old and up, which fits in with Australian regulations. Nonetheless, it's bound to reinforce beliefs that Facebook still has work to do when it comes to responsible ad targeting. While it's legal to pitch ads to teens, that doesn't make it acceptable to take advantage of their weaker moments.

Update: Facebook says the premise of the Australian piece is "misleading," and that the leaked document (analysis from an Australian researcher) was meant to show marketers "how people express themselves" on the social network. It wasn't used to target ads, Facebook claims. With that said, Facebook notes that the research "did not follow" its established review process and that it's examining the details to fix its "oversight."