Representation, Self-Determination, and Refusal: Queer People’s Experiences with Targeted Advertising

Princess Sampson, Ro Encarnación, and Danaë Metaxa

Targeted online advertising systems increasingly draw scrutiny for the surveillance underpinning their collection of people's private data, and subsequent automated categorization and inference. The experiences of LGBTQ+ people, whose identities call into question dominant assumptions about who is seen as “normal,” and deserving of privacy, autonomy, and the right to self-determination, are a fruitful site for exploring the impacts of ad targeting. We conducted semi-structured interviews with LGBTQ+ individuals (N=18) to understand their experiences with online advertising, their perceptions of ad targeting, and the interplay of these systems with their queerness and other identities. Our results reflect participants’ overall negative experiences with online ad content—they described it as stereotypical and tokenizing in its lack of diversity and nuance. But their desires for better ad content also clashed with their more fundamental distrust and rejection of the non-consensual and extractive nature of ad targeting. They voiced privacy concerns about continuous data aggregation and behavior tracking, a desire for greater control over their data and attention, and even the right to opt-out entirely. Drawing on scholarship from queer and feminist theory, we explore targeted ads’ homonormativity in their failure to represent multiply-marginalized queer people, the harms of automated inference and categorization to identity formation and self-determination, and the theory of refusal underlying participants’ queer visions for a better online experience.