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Advertisers target women seeking abortions with anti-choice ads

Geo-fencing let's them send ads straight to a woman's phone.


Jaya Saxena


Posted on May 26, 2016   Updated on May 26, 2021, 5:18 pm CDT

An advertising company is using its smartphone surveillance technology to target women with anti-abortion ads while they’re inside abortion clinics. And it’s totally legal.

In an investigation from ReWire, John Flynn, CEO of Copley Advertising, says his company has been using mobile geo-fencing technology—which allows marketers to send targeted ads to smartphone users in a specific area, which they get from the phone’s GPS—to send anti-choice advertisements on behalf of clients like Bethany Christian Services and RealOptions.

“In his sales PowerPoint, Flynn said that he had already attempted to ping cellphones for RealOptions and Bethany nearly 3 million times, and had been able to steer thousands of women to their websites,” says ReWire.

While it may seem like this is a severe invasion of privacy, it’s usually legal. If you have location services enabled on your phone and have searched for terms like “abortion” and “Planned Parenthood,” those data are associated with your “advertising ID.” Those IDs are supposed to be anonymous, but “any site or app that uses a profile with your name and any other information—Facebook, dating services, banking apps—can link your device, and your advertising ID, to the real you,” writes ReWire.

Anti-abortion organizations have long used shady tactics to undermine the perfectly legal procedure. One of Copley Advertising’s clients, RealOptions, is a “crisis pregnancy center”—i.e., centers that often advertise as providing abortions, but in reality attempt to manipulate women into carrying out unwanted pregnancies.

RealOptions’ website is clearly meant to scare women into not getting abortions. Its “Abortion” tab opens with: “During an abortion procedure, cells infected with chlamydia or gonorrhea can travel from your cervix up into your uterus.” It also advises men on what to do if their partner wants an abortion: “Someone might say, ‘Just have her get an abortion,’ and this may seem like an easy solution, but it may ultimately be the hardest road to walk.”

It positions adoption and parenting in much more favorable light. “Although the timing and your current situation may not be what you pictured, your pregnancy still offers you the opportunity to experience the joy of becoming a parent,” it writes.

In a statement, Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, says Planned Parenthood does everything in its power to ensure patient safety and privacy, though it cannot confirm they’ve seen any incidence of these ads. 

“Our security and cybersecurity teams work to ensure that all of our patients experience a safe, nonjudgemental, harassment-free zone at our health centers,” she said. “Let me be clear: We will pursue every avenue available to protect our patients from targeted harassment and stigmatization. We are committed to protecting our patients and will take all claims extremely seriously.” 

To turn off as many tracking and location services on your phone and social media accounts as possible, you can start by jumping into each app’s settings. And here’s a guide for turning off ads on Facebook.

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*First Published: May 26, 2016, 1:36 pm CDT