Smile! You could be in an ad

Have you sometimes shared a picture publicly via sites like 500px, Pinterest or Flickr or via apps as Instagram? Probably you did, like many others. For instance via Instagram alone 20 billion photos have already been shared and about 60 million pictures are added every day.

You probably know that when you share pictures publicly on these sites or apps, everybody can view them. But were you aware that marketing firms are scanning these sites for your pictures and subsequently store and analyze them so they can give their clients information about the person(s) and brand(s) in these pictures?

Ditto Labs for example analyzes photos for their clients to see if next to a person a specific product is in that picture too. They furthermore scan for logos, whether the person in that picture is smiling, and the scene’s context. This company detects patterns in consumer behavior based on the data gathered from images. For example, Ditto Labs can tell what you like to drink when eating pizza. Based on the context of their images, people are classified (e.g. sports fans). Marketers can then use these insights to better target ads specifically to these people and/or use it to conduct market research.

Maybe that won’t scare you off to share your images publicly, after all we are more and more getting used to companies collecting information about our (online) behavior. Not only the sites we visit is being tracked, but services like Netflix and Pandora use algorithms to recommend movies or songs based on someone’s preferences or those of people with similar profiles.

Some firms do not only analyze your pictures, they save them on their own servers as well. This way they can offer clients an overview of pictures with their brand or that of a competitor in it. This gives these clients, among other options, the opportunity to track which of their own products and those of competing brands are the most popular.

In the future, if these photo-sharing services change their privacy policies and allow it, a picture of you could end up in an ad. In 2013 Facebook changed their Statement of Rights and Responsibilities in such a way that companies could pay them to display your name and/or profile picture in their ads. With the roll out of its new ad platform (Atlas), Facebook allows other companies to use its detailed knowledge of its users to direct ads to those people on other websites and mobile apps. As the owner of Instagram, Facebook could change the privacy policy of this file-sharing service to match its own one, and allow other firms to use your pictures in ads.

Do you mind if a picture of you, unsolicited, could end up in an ad? Let me know in the comments.


Duhigg, C. (2012). Psst, You in Aisle 5, The New York Times, February 16, 2012, p. MM30

Facebook (2013). Statement of Rights and Responsibilities, Available at:

Goel, V. (2013). Facebook Reasserts Posts Can Be Used to Advertise, The New York Times, November 15, 2013, Available at:

Goel, V. (2014). With New Ad Platform, Facebook Opens Gates to Its Vault of User Data, The New York Times, September 28, 2014, p. B7

Kosner, A.W. (2013). New Facebook Policies Sell Your Face And Whatever It Infers, Forbes, August 31, 2013, Available at:

MacMillan, D. & Dwoskin, E. (2014). Smile! Marketing Firms Are Mining Your Selfies, The Wall Street Journal, October 9, 2014

Singer, N. (2014). Listen to Pandora, and It Listens Back, The New York Times, January 5, 2014, p. BU3


One response to “Smile! You could be in an ad”

  1. 358406at says :

    As you say, I think that nowadays consumers have to get used to brands and firms using their data to improve their products, developed better services or target better ads to get us to buy (more). The idea of firms using instagram or other website to actually understand how consumers perceive their own brand is actually quite clever and does not seem to cross privacy boundaries per say. On the other hand, using these same pictures in ads (and apparently even using names) does seem more intrusive. I personally find it quite ‘sneaky’ of certain brands (let’s not mention that one of them is a giant blue social network..) to change their policies without user’s consent to allow such practise. Yes we do live in a wild jungle and these firms need to compete fiercely to sustain their competitive advantages, but let’s not forget that once there was a certain place for ethics in business. Privacy is not about hiding forever everything the firm knows about a customer to third parties, but as Steve jobs once said “privacy is about letting the user know what he signs up for”. If when asked the user allows the firm to use their data, then it’s fair game. Doing it on the background however doesn’t quite comply with this definition of privacy.

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