The Real Restrictions of Special Ad Categories

Facebook is the largest, worldwide social network for users and advertisers. With 2.7 billion monthly active users, advertising on Facebook is critical to every brand’s digital marketing strategy, however, there are complexities and certain restrictions for companies that fall in the Special Ad Category.

As of 2020, advertisements concerning social issues, elections and politics, employment opportunities, credit, and housing opportunities are deemed “Special Ad Categories,” under Facebook’s targeting policies – but what does that mean?

Since Facebook integrated paid advertising options, the media giant has been under the microscope for the astounding amount of data the channel gathers on users. The unintended consequences of leveraging unlimited, highly specific data on Facebook users can be discrimination masked as audience targeting.

Beyond discriminatory outcomes, targeting feeds the algorithmic cycle which directs more and more similar information to users. As this occurs the field of information and commercial offerings narrow drastically and constrict the user’s field of options and content. Special Ad Categories limit audience selection to protect users from unlawful discrimination. Restrictions for businesses in this category includes targeting based on income, age, gender, zip code, lookalike audiences, and more depending on the advertisement.

What You Need to Know

Looking at the two guiding anti-discrimination laws, it is clear why Facebook restricts targeting for employment, housing and other promotions in the Special Ad Category. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission established in 1964 makes it unlawful to discriminate against employees and applicants on the bases of gender and age as well as various other demographics. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 addressed discriminatory practices of some businesses that made decisions based on race, religion, gender, nationality, familial status and disabilities.

To align with well-established legal precedent, Facebook course-corrected to prohibit advertisers in these industries from developing targeted campaigns using the socioeconomic and demographic information detailed in these laws. Companies aligning with Facebook’s Special Ad Category do not have access to age targeting. Instead, the ads platform defaults to 18 – 65+ years. Additionally, no gender or income information can be accessed.

Targeting certain behaviors and interests is limited and selecting specific zip codes is prohibited. Lastly, lookalike audiences are restricted on ad sets in the Special Ad Category. A lookalike audience is a group of social network members who are determined to share characteristics with another group which might be of interest to the advertiser.

Additionally, Facebook now requires businesses to become authorized to run ads about social issues, elections, or politics following the 2020 presidential election. To become authorized you must complete a two-step verification and submit your ID to Facebook’s internal team for review. As of November 4, 2020 Facebook discontinued ads about social issues, elections, or politics completely until mid-December.

So, what can you do?

Even if your business is in Facebook’s Special Ad Category, there are multiple ways you can reach your audience and connect with users. For starters, even if you can’t target by zip code, you can target specific cities. This will target users within a 15-mile, or broader radius of any city you select. Audience market research is critical to producing the best possible return on ad spend.

Some detailed targeting options, while limited, are still available – including specific interests. For example, real estate businesses can target interests such as real estate investing, house hunting, and home investment even in a Special Ad Category as these are informational and educational opportunities and not a direct sales offering.

Where You Go from Here

Facebook has placed these restrictions on Special Ad Categories, not to limit your business’s potential, but to ensure the safety and protection of users and their civil rights, which is something we can all get behind. Facebook’s ad guidelines and restrictions continually change as they work towards better protecting their users. By following these Special Ad Category guidelines, your company can still see profitable return on investment from advertising on Facebook.


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