How dark is “dark advertising”? We audited Facebook, Google and other platforms to find out

Ashkar Dave / Unsplash

Once upon a time, most advertisements were public. If we wanted to see what advertisers were doing, we could easily find it – on TV, in newspapers and magazines, and on billboards all over town.


  • Nicolas Carah

    Associate Professor of Digital Media, University of Queensland

  • Aimee Brownbill

    Honorary Fellow, Public Health, University of Queensland

  • Amy Shields Dobson

    Senior Lecturer in Digital and Social Media, Curtin University

  • Brady Robard

    Associate Professor of Sociology, Monash University

  • Daniel Angus

    Professor of Digital Communication, Queensland University of Technology

  • Kiah Hawker

    Assistant Researcher, Digital Media, University of Queensland

  • Lauren Hayden

    PhD Candidate and Research Assistant, University of Queensland

  • Xue Ying Tan

    Software Engineer, Center for Digital Media Research, Queensland University of Technology

This meant that governments, civil society and citizens could control advertisers, especially when they advertised products that could be harmful, such as alcohol, tobacco, gambling, pharmaceuticals, financial services or unhealthy foods.

However, the rise of online advertisements has led to a kind of “dark advertising”. Ads are often only visible to the targets they are intended for, they disappear moments after being seen, and no one except the platforms knows how, when, where and why the ads appear.

In a new study conducted for the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE), we audited the advertising transparency of seven major digital platforms. The results were grim: neither platform is transparent enough for the public to understand what ad they are posting and how it is targeted.

Why is transparency important?

Dark ads on digital platforms shape public life. They have been used to spread political lies, target racial groups and perpetuate gender bias.

Dark advertising on digital platforms is also a problem when it comes to addictive and harmful products such as alcohol, gambling and unhealthy foods.

In a recent study with VicHealth, we found that age-restricted products, such as alcohol and gambling, were targeted to people under 18 on digital platforms. Currently, however, there is no way to systematically monitor the types of alcohol and gambling advertisements that children see.

Ads are optimized to drive engagement, such as through clicks or purchases, and target those most likely to engage. For example, people identified as heavy drinkers are likely to receive more alcohol advertisements.

This optimization can have extreme results. A study by the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) and the Cancer Council WA found that a user received 107 advertisements for alcoholic products on Facebook and Instagram in a single hour on a Friday evening in April 2020.

How transparent is advertising on digital platforms?

We assessed the transparency of advertising across major digital platforms – Facebook, Instagram, Google Search, YouTube, Twitter, Snapchat and TikTok – by asking the following nine questions:

  • Is there a complete and permanent archive of all ads published on the platform?
  • Is the archive accessible using an application programming interface (API)?
  • Is there a public dashboard that can be consulted and updated in real time?
  • are announcements permanently stored in the archive?
  • can we access the deleted advertisements?
  • can we download advertisements for analysis?
  • Can we see what types of users the ad was targeting?
  • how much did the advertisement cost?
  • can we say how many people the ad has reached?

Not all platforms included in our assessment met basic transparency criteria, which means that advertising on the platform is not observable by civil society, researchers or regulators. Most of the time, advertising can only be seen by its targets.

Notably, TikTok had no transparency measures to allow observation of advertising on the platform.

Other platforms weren’t much better, none offering a full or permanent ad archive. This means that once an ad campaign is over, there is no way to observe which ads have been shown.

Facebook and Instagram are the only platforms to publish a list of all currently active advertisements. However, most of these ads are removed once the campaign is inactive and are no longer observable.

The platforms also fail to provide contextual information for ads, such as ad spend and reach, or how ads are targeted.

Without this information, it is difficult to understand who is being advertised on these platforms. For example, we cannot be sure that companies selling harmful and addictive products are not targeting children or people recovering from addiction. Platforms and advertisers simply ask us to trust them.

We found that platforms were starting to provide information about a narrowly defined category of advertising: “issues, elections or politics”. This shows that there is no technical reason to withhold information about other types of advertising from the public. On the contrary, the platforms choose to keep it secret.

Put the ad back in public view

When digital advertising can be systematically monitored, it will be possible to hold digital platforms and marketers accountable for their business practices.

Our assessment of advertising transparency on digital platforms demonstrates that they are currently not observable or accountable to the public. Consumers, civil society, regulators and even advertisers all have an interest in ensuring a better public understanding of how digital platforms’ dark advertising models work.

The limited steps platforms have taken to create public records, particularly in the case of political advertising, demonstrate that change is possible. And the detailed advertising performance dashboards they offer advertisers show that there are no technical barriers to accountability.

The conversation

Nicholas Carah is Vice President of the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education. Nicholas receives funding from the Australian Research Council, VicHealth and the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education.

Aimee Brownbill is Senior Policy and Research Advisor at the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education.

Amy Dobson receives funding from the Australian Research Council (LPLP190101051 DPDP220100152), VicHealth and the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education.

Brady Robards receives funding from the Australian Research Council (DE190100858, LP190101051, SR200200364), VicHealth, the Department for the Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Department for Education, Skills and Employment.

Daniel Angus receives funding from the Australian Research Council through Discovery Projects DP200100519 ‘Using machine vision to explore Instagram’s daily promotional cultures’, DP200101317 ‘Evaluating the Challenge of ‘Fake News’ and Other Malinformation’, and Linkage Project LP190101051 ‘Young Australians and the Promotion of Alcohol on Social Media’. He is a research associate at the ARC Center of Excellence for Automated Decision Making and Society, CE200100005.

Kiah Hawker, Lauren Hayden, and Xue Ying Tan do not work for, consult with, own stock in, or receive funding from any company or organization that benefits from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations to beyond their academic appointment.

/ Courtesy of The Conversation. This material from the original organization/authors may be ad hoc in nature, edited for clarity, style and length. The views and opinions expressed are those of the authors.


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