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The Distressing Ads That Persist: Uncovering The Harms of Targeted Weight-Loss Ads Among Users with Histories of Disordered Eating

by   Liza Gak, et al.
berkeley college

Targeted advertising can harm vulnerable groups when it targets individuals' personal and psychological vulnerabilities. We focus on how targeted weight-loss advertisements harm people with histories of disordered eating. We identify three features of targeted advertising that cause harm: the persistence of personal data that can expose vulnerabilities, over-simplifying algorithmic relevancy models, and design patterns encouraging engagement that can facilitate unhealthy behavior. Through a series of semi-structured interviews with individuals with histories of unhealthy body stigma, dieting, and disordered eating, we found that targeted weight-loss ads reinforced low self-esteem and deepened pre-existing anxieties around food and exercise. At the same time, we observed that targeted individuals demonstrated agency and resistance against distressing ads. Drawing on scholarship in postcolonial environmental studies, we use the concept of slow violence to articulate how online targeted advertising inflicts harms that may not be immediately identifiable. CAUTION: This paper includes media that could be triggering, particularly to people with an eating disorder. Please use caution when reading, printing, or disseminating this paper.


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