The Rise of Dark Marketing

Online ads
Online ads

Dark marketing or ghost marketing relies on the fact that adverts that are highly relevant to a target audience are the ones that are the most successful.

Dark marketing has only been around five years or so, but it has quickly become the most effective form of digital advertising by far.

In ghost or dark marketing, the objective is to make advertising as efficient as possible by targeting it towards a narrow audience. However, while dark marketing is incredibly effective, it does have a shady side and unless you’ve been marooned on a desert island, you’ve probably read about Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, using data without explicit consent to alter the focus of elections.

What is Dark Marketing?

In digital advertising, dark marketing is a kind of advertising campaign where ads aren’t visible to everyone, and where the sponsor of the advertising can remain hidden if they choose. For any given dark marketing campaign, the ads are generally visible only to the advertiser, their publisher, and the target audience for the advertising.

Targeted advertising is achieved through careful research of the desired audience, and then the targeting of that audience via the application of a range of different selection criteria. For instance, using Google AdWords it’s possible to target people in a specific country, city, and even in a specific neighbourhood. Ads can be targeted at particular times on the day on designated days of the week. They can be targeted to people who have elsewhere online expressed interest in particular products. And using what’s known as psychographic targeting, ads can be displayed specifically for people with specific opinions, beliefs, or interests.

For advertisers, one of the most desirable qualities of dark marketing isn’t that it’s possible to accurately target certain demographics. It’s that it’s also possible to “deselect” people from other demographic to ensure they don’t see the advertising. This allows an advertiser to create multiple different versions of an advertisement, each aimed at a different demographic, and is particularly advantageous in situations where it might be detrimental for one target demographic to see advertising that’s aimed at another.

The term “dark marketing” or “dark advertising” was coined in 2012, when Facebook made it possible for advertisers to create sponsored posts. These sponsored posts are identical to normal posts in every respect, but are labelled as “Sponsored” to indicate that they are advertising. The fact that advertisers could do this meant that they could target particular demographics to receive particular advertisements while keeping them hidden from the wider audience. For more on dark posts, read our earlier article.

Problems with Dark Marketing

For advertisers, there are a number of issues with dark marketing. One is that it creates a marketing campaign that’s highly fragmented, which makes it much harder to see the big picture. To quantify the overall effectiveness of a dark marketing campaign—which involves multiple different iterations of the same ads, targeted to multiple different demographics—requires a lot of data-crunching, and that can be time-consuming. To add to this, when competitors are also using dark marketing techniques, it’s hard to keep an eye on their advertising. You’re just not going to see it when you’re not in the right demographic.

However, the problems with dark marketing go much deeper than this, and these deeper problems aren’t about the advertisers—they’re about how people are being selectively targeted and influenced by more than just sales marketing.


What data is available?

Facebook is clear about the data that is available and on its accessing your data page lists the info available, what this is is and where it can be found.



What info is available? What is it? Where can I find it?
About Me Information you added to the About section of your Timeline like relationships, work, education, where you live and more. It includes any updates or changes you made in the past and what is currently in the About section of your Timeline. Activity Log
Downloaded Info
Account Status History The dates when your account was reactivated, deactivated, disabled or deleted. Downloaded Info
Active Sessions All stored active sessions, including date, time, device, IP address, machine cookie and browser information. Downloaded Info
Ads Clicked Dates, times and titles of ads clicked (limited retention period). Downloaded Info
Address Your current address or any past addresses you had on your account. Downloaded Info
Ad Topics A list of topics that you may be targeted against based on your stated likes, interests and other data you put in your Timeline. Downloaded Info
Alternate Name Any alternate names you have on your account (ex: a maiden name or a nickname). Downloaded Info
Apps All of the apps you have added. Downloaded Info
Birthday Visibility How your birthday appears on your Timeline. Downloaded Info
Chat A history of the conversations you’ve had on Facebook Chat (a complete history is available directly from your messages inbox). Downloaded Info
Check-ins The places you’ve checked into. Activity Log
Downloaded Info
Connections The people who have liked your Page or Place, RSVPed to your event, installed your app or checked in to your advertised place within 24 hours of viewing or clicking on an ad or Sponsored Story. Activity Log
Credit Cards If you make purchases on Facebook (ex: in apps) and have given Facebook your credit card number. Account Settings
Currency Your preferred currency on Facebook. If you use Facebook Payments, this will be used to display prices and charge your credit cards. Downloaded Info
Current City The city you added to the About section of your Timeline. Downloaded Info
Date of Birth The date you added to Birthday in the About section of your Timeline. Downloaded Info
Deleted Friends People you’ve removed as friends. Downloaded Info
Education Any information you added to Education field in the About section of your Timeline. Downloaded Info
Emails Email addresses added to your account (even those you may have removed). Downloaded Info
Events Events you’ve joined or been invited to. Activity Log
Downloaded Info
Facial Recognition Data A unique number based on a comparison of the photos you’re tagged in. We use this data to help others tag you in photos. Downloaded Info
Family Friends you’ve indicated are family members. Downloaded Info
Favorite Quotes Information you’ve added to the Favorite Quotes section of the About section of your Timeline. Downloaded Info
Followers A list of people who follow you. Downloaded Info
Following A list of people you follow. Activity Log
Friend Requests Pending sent and received friend requests. Downloaded Info
Friends A list of your friends. Downloaded Info
Gender The gender you added to the About section of your Timeline. Downloaded Info
Groups A list of groups you belong to on Facebook. Downloaded Info
Hidden from News Feed Any friends, apps or pages you’ve hidden from your News Feed. Downloaded Info
Hometown The place you added to hometown in the About section of your Timeline. Downloaded Info
IP Addresses A list of IP addresses where you’ve logged into your Facebook account (won’t include all historical IP addresses as they are deleted according to a retention schedule). Downloaded Info
Last Location The last location associated with an update. Activity Log
Likes on Others’ Posts Posts, photos or other content you’ve liked. Activity Log
Likes on Your Posts from others Likes on your own posts, photos or other content. Activity Log
Likes on Other Sites Likes you’ve made on sites off of Facebook. Activity Log
Linked Accounts A list of the accounts you’ve linked to your Facebook account Account Settings
Locale The language you’ve selected to use Facebook in. Downloaded Info
Logins IP address, date and time associated with logins to your Facebook account. Downloaded Info
Logouts IP address, date and time associated with logouts from your Facebook account. Downloaded Info
Matched Accounts Contact information that may be associated with your account. Personal Data Request
Messages Messages you’ve sent and received on Facebook. Note, if you’ve deleted a message it won’t be included in your download as it has been deleted from your account. Downloaded Info
Name The name on your Facebook account. Downloaded Info
Name Changes Any changes you’ve made to the original name you used when you signed up for Facebook. Downloaded Info
Networks Networks (affiliations with schools or workplaces) that you belong to on Facebook. Downloaded Info
Notes Any notes you’ve written and published to your account. Activity Log
Notification Settings A list of all your notification preferences and whether you have email and text enabled or disabled for each. Downloaded Info
Pages You Admin A list of pages you admin. Downloaded Info
Pending Friend Requests Pending sent and received friend requests. Downloaded Info
Phone Numbers Mobile phone numbers you’ve added to your account, including verified mobile numbers you’ve added for security purposes. Downloaded Info
Photos Photos you’ve uploaded to your account. Downloaded Info
Photos Metadata Any metadata that is transmitted with your uploaded photos. Downloaded Info
Physical Tokens Badges you’ve added to your account. Downloaded Info
Pokes A list of who’s poked you and who you’ve poked. Poke content from our mobile poke app is not included because it’s only available for a brief period of time. After the recipient has viewed the content it’s permanently deleted from our systems. Downloaded Info
Political Views Any information you added to Political Views in the About section of Timeline. Downloaded Info
Posts by You Anything you posted to your own Timeline, like photos, videos and status updates. Activity Log
Posts by Others Anything posted to your Timeline by someone else, like wall posts or links shared on your Timeline by friends. Activity Log
Downloaded Info
Posts to Others Anything you posted to someone else’s Timeline, like photos, videos and status updates. Activity Log
Privacy Settings Your privacy settings. Privacy Settings

Downloaded Info

Recent Activities Actions you’ve taken and interactions you’ve recently had. Activity Log
Downloaded Info
Registration Date The date you joined Facebook. Activity Log
Downloaded Info
Religious Views The current information you added to Religious Views in the About section of your Timeline. Downloaded Info
Removed Friends People you’ve removed as friends. Activity Log
Downloaded Info
Screen Names The screen names you’ve added to your account, and the service they’re associated with. You can also see if they’re hidden or visible on your account. Downloaded Info
Searches Searches you’ve made on Facebook. Activity Log
Shares Content (ex: a news article) you’ve shared with others on Facebook using the Share button or link. Activity Log
Spoken Languages The languages you added to Spoken Languages in the Aboutsection of your Timeline. Downloaded Info
Status Updates Any status updates you’ve posted. Activity Log
Downloaded Info
Work Any current information you’ve added to Work in the About section of your Timeline. Downloaded Info
Vanity URL Your Facebook URL (ex: username or vanity for your account). Visible in your Timeline URL
Videos Videos you’ve posted to your Timeline. Activity Log
Downloaded Info

If you want to download your Facebook data simply follow these steps:

1. Go to settings – you should be on the page General Account Settings.


2. Scroll to end (it’s not far) and you’ll see Download a copy of your Facebook data.


3. Click here and you’ll receive a confirmation email stating:


You recently requested a copy of your Facebook data. We’ll send you another email with a link to your download when it’s ready. For security reasons, the link will only work for a few days after being sent, so please monitor your emails for our message. If the link doesn’t work by the time you read your email, you’ll have to restart the download.


4. Another email will appear – this takes up to an hour, depending on the data you’ve added and over how many years.

You recently requested a copy of your Facebook data. It’s now ready for you to download.
Because this download may contain private information, you should keep it secure and take precautions when storing it, sending it or uploading it to another service.

Click the link below to go directly to your download. If the link redirects you to your account settings page, simply click “Download a copy of your Facebook data” to be redirected to the file we’ve prepared.

Please note: For security reasons, you can only download the copy we’ve prepared for you within a few days of this email being sent. You’ll need to start the process again if you’re unable to access your download.


5. Click the link to download.



6. A zip file will download.


7. To explore the data start with your ads history. If you select ‘html’ and then ‘ads’ you can see topics where you’ve looked at Facebook pages. As an example, some of mine included the examples below – there were no surprises here.

Ads Topics
The Irish Store
Social media
Consumer electronics
The Walt Disney Company
Yorkshire Tea
Commonwealth of Nations
Tech News
American Marketing Association


8. The html area contains the most useful items, such as all the apps with your details – remember when you login with Facebook to save time? Along with your entire FB history, all the videos and photos you’ve posted.

When Dark Marketing Turns Shady

Currently dark marketing is dominated by the combination of Google AdWords and Facebook, which together pull in 50% of the global digital advertising spend, with an ever-increasing market share. And it’s all down to the powerful combination of AdWords’ ability to target specific demographics, and Facebook’s behind-the-scenes data collection that makes it easier than ever before to sort people into those demographics.

From Facebook’s 1.3 billion users, it collects an immense amount of personal data, all of it providing clues as to each individual’s interests, opinions, and beliefs. For advertisers it’s a boon, but there’s a darker side to dark marketing, and it exists not in advertising, but in politics.


Why Facebook is Eliminating Certain Kinds of Dark Marketing

Recent global events—most notably the 2016 US Presidential election, the 2016 UK Brexit referendum, and the 2017 UK elections—have sparked major concerns about the influence of politically-biased sponsored content masquerading as news, in particular on Facebook. Of even greater concern is that for the most part, the so-called news is rarely factual, and in the case of the US Presidential election, was to a great extent manufactured by overseas interest groups. Studies have shown that this kind of politically-oriented advertising is highly influential, and given that it’s impossible to fact-check the content of such news, the implications are somewhat sinister.

More than that, it’s now apparent that the 2016 US Presidential election was subject to influence from Russian interest groups that spread what is now called “fake news” on Facebook, in an effort to undermine the democratic process. Underpinning the entire campaign was the use of dark marketing techniques that made it possible to publish fake news while concealing the origins of the advertisers that paid for it.

In September 2017, Mark Zuckerberg announced on Facebook that the company would change its advertising standards in order to illuminate dark marketing in relation to politically-oriented advertisements. “We’re going to bring Facebook to an even higher standard of transparency,” Zuckerberg said.


“Not only will [political advertisers] have to disclose which page paid for an ad, but we will also make it so you can visit an advertiser’s page and see the ads that they are currently running to any audience on Facebook.”


So, this element of dark marketing will improve, at least on Facebook. Right now they don’t have much choice. Although it’s unlikely that large numbers of people will take the time to check advertiser pages for this kind of information, they will at least have the option to do so.


What’s the Future of Dark Marketing?

Dark marketing can be highly advantageous for both advertisers and consumers. One side benefits from a more efficient use of their advertising budget, while the other benefits from advertising that shows them products and services they’re genuinely interested in. But while dark marketing isn’t inherently bad, there is the potential for it to be used in ways that are less than ethical. It’s therefore important that digital advertisers remain vigilant when developing their own campaigns, to ensure they remain above board.


It’s likely that regulators will look more closely at what’s available and start to limit he harvesting of data or request data gatherers (like Facebook) to explicitly state ‘this will be added to your profile’.


What else could happen?

  • Users could start to gamify data collection by visiting non relevant sites – this would render the targeted advertising useless in many cases.
  • People may decide to abandon social media, but that’s unlikely. It’s an easy place to share events and news.
  • Users may take mini breaks from social media sites, like Facebook. But as soon as they see they’re missing out, they may return.
  • Advertisers may need to add ‘this ad is based on preferences for XYZ’ to explain where and how the data was gathered.

Elections have always involved propaganda – rumours, fake news and outrageous stories. This is likely to continue. What will be different is the social media companies being more careful about their involvement and adopting the white knight approach to save the planet and preserve democracy. However if the sales teams are rewarded on commission, what’s said and what’s done may remain as two different entities.

On 25 May 2018 with the advent of GDPR, proactive advertising is still available, but re-targeting may become more complex. We’re not sure what will happen and how the data companies will address this – so i’ts a watch this space.