Please note: This article contains images of pregnancy and baby products that some readers may find upsetting
When Melissa Elliott discovered she was pregnant she did what a lot of mums-to-be do: immediately started googling advice.
Her social media feeds were almost instantly peppered with adverts for baby products, prams and parenting groups, she says. But while the Facebook and Instagram algorithm had clearly worked out she was pregnant, it could not detect that Melissa was having a difficult pregnancy.
She experienced bleeding throughout her pregnancy and required regular hospital visits to check on the development of her twins. When the two boys died at sixteen-and-a-half weeks this August, Melissa had to deliver them in hospital. The adverts, she says, had made her feel “even more anxious and stressed” during the pregnancy, and she’s continued to be targeted with maternity ads since losing her sons.
“My world is very dark right now, it feels very empty,” says the 36-year-old from London. ”It’s the hardest thing seeing pregnant people and babies and buggies and anything to do with twins. If I see a double buggy, that really gets me.”
Targeted advertising works by allowing businesses to direct their sponsored posts towards a specific demographic. Facebook (which also owns Instagram), enables brands to target their ads to users based on gender, age, location, hobbies or behaviour. This latter criteria refers to your browsing history and habits, including websites you’ve searched for and accessed, newsletter signups and app downloads.
When an advert appears on your timeline, Facebook gives users the option to click on a button to “hide” the ad, then send feedback about your reasons. The multiple choice options are limited to phrases such as “I find this offensive” and “I find this irrelevant”. Instagram also gives users the option to “see fewer posts like this”.
There is an option to hide pregnancy-related ads buried in Facebook’s settings, but Melissa – and other women we’ve spoken to – had no idea this function existed. Melissa repeatedly clicked the “offensive” option throughout her pregnancy and beyond, but says she continued to see ads that she found triggering. In a desperate attempt to send Facebook (or its algorithm) the message, she repeatedly googled the word “miscarriage”.
“I just didn’t know what else to do, I felt really helpless throughout the pregnancy and now I feel even more helpless,” she says.
While the frequency of baby-related ads slowed after a few weeks, Melissa is still receiving maternity sponsored posts on occasion; she sent us a screenshot of an ad for a pregnancy fitness class she’d received just this week.
“The algorithm that worked out we were pregnant wasn’t able to work out we weren’t anymore.”
Annie, 29, from Brighton has also been targeted with maternity ads – which she welcomed at first. She and her wife were undergoing IVF, using Annie’s eggs with her wife as the carrier.
“When we got our first positive pregnancy test I was so excited that I probably clicked on every single baby and pregnancy advert in my timeline. I wanted all of the products and loved imagining our baby wearing the cute clothes on my screen,” says Annie. But the ads became painful to view after the couple were told they had miscarried at their eight-week scan.
“Unfortunately the algorithm that worked out we were pregnant wasn’t able to work out that we weren’t anymore,” says Annie. “It broke my heart the day I went through my timeline and clicked on every single baby and pregnancy advert, selected ‘I don’t want to see this’ and then chose my reason as ‘it’s irrelevant.’ Despite doing this, for the next few weeks the adverts kept appearing and each time it was like a punch right in the stomach.”
The frequency of baby and pregnancy adverts eventually decreased, but continue to pop up every now and again, she says.
“I hovered over one and clicked ‘why am I seeing this’ and was told that this advertiser was targeting women, over the age of 25, who were married. I didn’t need my social media account to tell me what I already knew, that I should be starting a family.”
Four months later and desperate to start their family, the couple decided to try again, this time with Annie carrying. But after she started bleeding heavily at five weeks, the couple received the confirmation – on her wife’s birthday – that they’d miscarried for a second time.
Both miscarriages have had a huge effect on their mental health, according to Annie. “I don’t think I can put into words how utterly life shattering it is. I know that I can’t go back to the ‘old me’ and that this new sadness, this is my new normal,” she says. “Every time I see a smiling pregnant woman or a sweet baby outfit on my timeline it breaks my heart. It reminds me of everything that I imagined and hoped for. It reminds me of the pain and injustice of everything that has happened to us and it feels like it is being shoved in my face.”
These adverts have also proved upsetting to Carly-May Kavanagh, 22, from Brighton, who has polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and additional gynaecological issues, which make it “incredibly difficult if not impossible” for her to conceive in the future. She says maternity ads are a near-constant on her Facebook feed.
“Not only do I get reminders about my infertility from the pain of my condition, and from hospital visits where likely well-meaning women ask if I’m trying for a baby, but I then get reminded just from scrolling through Facebook,” she says.
“I hate the assumption that all women want to see these adverts, or would benefit from seeing them”
Carly-May claims she never spends her free time looking up maternity clothes or baby toys. Instead, when she clicks “why am I seeing this?” on Facebook she is simply told the company is targeting women her age.
“I hate the assumption that all women want to see these adverts, or would benefit from seeing them,” she says. “And honestly, it makes me feel inadequate as a woman. Not to go all Handmaid’s Tale, but knowing that my body is unable to do something that it ‘should’ be able to do and then being reminded of it through 15-20 adverts a day isn’t helpful for dealing with that.”
Of course, miscarriage and infertility do not just affect women. Lewis*, 31, from Leeds, finds viewing the ads difficult, too, but also worries about the impact they have on his wife since the couple experienced two ectopic pregnancies.
“For my wife, baby ads, social media and even friends’ babies make her sad and angry,” he says. “It’s sold as easy and happy when, for us at least, it’s involved so much heartbreak.”
Lewis’s wife has now quit social media “because of the endless baby pictures”, but he feels a responsibility to take other precautions to protect her – “little things like avoiding walking past Mothercare or just muting TV ads,” he says. But what is Facebook doing to stop these ads affecting vulnerable people?
When HuffPost UK contacted Facebook, the company highlighted that there is a “Hide Ad Topics” function which users can find by opening Settings, then Ads. You then need to click on “Hide Ad Topics”, where you can select to remove ads relating to parenting from your timeline. There are options to remove parenting ads for six months, one year or permanently.
The option isn’t easy to find and neither Annie or Melissa knew it existed until speaking to us for this article. “I wish I’d known [about it] sooner,” says Annie. “It would have been much easier to turn that on, rather than going through each advert individually as it appeared!”
Melissa adds: “I did not know this existed at all. It would have been useful.
I had to hide each ad separately and individually for both Facebook and Instagram, which was very time consuming, as well as emotional.”
Speaking on behalf of Facebook and Instagram, a Facebook company spokesperson told HuffPost UK: “We understand how difficult it can be to see unwanted ads about a sensitive topic like parenting, which is why we introduced ‘Hide Ad Topics’. Still, we know this tool isn’t perfect, and we’re continuously working to make it more accurate.”
For people finding the settings hard to navigate, or those feeling overwhelmed by the baby-related posts of friends, quitting social media might feel like the only option. But Kristen Adamson has co-designed a membership-based platform, pineapl, to help people affected by infertility and pregnancy loss to connect to each other in a safe space, free from baby posts and triggering ads.
The 30-year-old Canadian, who now lives in London, was inspired to create the app due to her own difficult journey towards becoming a parent, where she founds ads on Facebook and Instagram triggering. She was diagnosed as infertile due to premature ovarian failure at the age of 19, but conceived when her sister offered to donate her eggs. This first pregnancy ended in miscarriage, but after a second try using donor eggs, Kristen is now mum to twin boys.
“When you’re experiencing something as devastating as infertility or pregnancy loss, being bombarded with advertisements featuring glowing pregnant women and baby-related products is like having salt poured in your wound,” says Kristen. “They’re a constant reminder of the happiness you can’t seem to have, and the happiness you feel you’re depriving your loved ones of.”
The app is due to launch soon and once live, it’ll match users facing similar challenges who want to speak to one another for support. “I wish I’d had access to a place like this on my own journey,” Kristen says, “So I’m working hard to give it to others on theirs.”
*Some names have been changed or surnames omitted to offer case studies anonymity.