Intrusive mobile ads can be annoying for many people. If a company tailors makes use of big data analytics to tailor the ads to the user, it can feel like an invasion of privacy, too.
When WeChat launched ads in user friend circles on January 25, some users of the Chinese messaging app were miffed by ads for car manufacturer BMW not because they found them intrusive or too tailor-made — but because they couldn't see the ads at all. They accuse WeChat of discriminating against users with lower incomes by swapping the BMW ads for ones showing smartphones or Coca-Cola instead.
Many WeChat users’ resentment was in reaction to a viral message explaining the use of big data behind the tailored ads. The message was circulated online in image format:
據說，微信朋友圈廣告推送是基於大數據分析，通過分析用戶朋友圈語言特性，以及朋友圈圖片內容，涉及到了自然語義理解，以及圖像識別這些人工智能技術，所以名字上是推廣告服務，實際上是對騰訊內部秘密研發已久的人工智能技術的實驗。那麼答案來了，騰訊人工智能對你的識別分類如下：年收入100萬以上，消費力強，收到的是寶馬廣告；買不起 iPhone 6 但買得起小米的，收到的是 vivo 的廣告；連小米，甚至紅米都買不起的，收到的是可口可樂的廣告；而那些喜歡在朋友圈吹水，特別閑的，但沒有收到朋友圈廣告的，微信是在告訴你，沒錢就好好干活，別刷手機了。
They say the ads in WeChat friend circles are based on big data analytics by looking into the attribution of the language and photos used in the user's friend circle. The technology involves artificial intelligence including semantic understanding of the words and graphic analysis. The so-called ads service is based on an experiment in artificial intelligence, which was developed inside [parent company] Tencent long ago. Here comes the answer [concerning the ads]: for those who have an annual income above one million yuan [approximately US $150,000] and can consume more, they receive BMW ads; for those who can afford a Xiao Mi [a local mobile brand], you get Vivo [a smart phone brand] ; and those who can't even afford Xiao Mi or even Red Mi, you get the Coco Cola ads. Those who have the time to hang around in friend circles but can't see any ads, the message from WeChat is: work hard if you don't have money, don't waste time refreshing your phone.
“Our Hui Zhou” (@我们的惠州), a user on Twitter-like website Weibo, is among those who kept refreshing his timeline to check if the BMW ad would eventually pop up:
Distressed after refreshing the friend circle timeline all day and still I couldn't see the BMW ad… The friend circle ads are really sophisticated, and those who do not have income like me are discriminated against.
Ma Weiwei (@马薇薇不算是昵称吧) couldn't see any ads in her WeChat friend circle timeline. She commented sarcastically on Weibo:
They say today WeChat launched ads in friend circles. As one of those who could not see any ads, I feel discriminated against by the app. No BMW, no smartphone, not even a f**king Coca-Cola ad — as the only storyteller in my friend's circle who does not show off fashion and banquets and who does not participate in any online-selling activities, I feel the hostility of e-business towards me.
It is interesting to see Chinese netizens’ criticism of the use of big data in advertising as “discrimination” while their western counterparts have been vocal in their criticism of its potential to breach user privacy. In the case of China, all online activities are monitored. Within this virtual Panopticon, the prisoners can't speak out against surveillance, but if they're going to be watched anyway, they can at least demand equal treatment.