When John Flynn considered the messaging strategies of the anti-choice movement, he saw a gaping hole that only technology could patch. Protestors could stand outside of Planned Parenthood picketing for hours, hoping to dissuade “abortion-minded women" from entering the clinic. Or they could reach those same women directly in the most intimate of spaces: on their phones.
Flynn is the CEO of Boston-based Copley Advertising, a firm that specializes in using geofencing to target ads at consumers based on location. Only in this case, instead of trying to sell shoes or cars, he wanted to sell women anti-choice propaganda.
Since last fall, Flynn has been working with anti-choice groups such as the evangelical adoption agency Bethany Christian Services to do just that.
“Marketing for pregnancy help centers has always been a needle in a haystack approach—cast a wide net and hope for the best,” Jennie VanHorn, a regional marketing manager for Bethany told the anti-choice website Live Action News when the campaign first launched. “With geo fencing, we can reach women who we know are looking for or in need of someone to talk to.”
The program for Bethany has so far hit 140 clinics in five cities: Columbus, Ohio; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Richmond, Virginia; St. Louis, Missouri; and New York City. Flynn was also hired by RealOptions, a network of crisis pregnancy centers in Northern California.
This kind of geolocation-targeting in advertising has become incredibly precise—earlier this year, an enterprising Alaska senator used it to target employees working in the Department of the Interior to convince officials to build a road through a wildlife refuge to make two remote towns in the state more accessible.
But while serving women up anti-choice rhetoric in the midst of what is often a vulnerable, emotional moment may be legal, the ethics are questionable. It is a violation of one of a woman's most private moments, tapping into information about her health and medical history in order to sell her on an ideology.
In documents obtained by Rewire, Flynn said that he had a “relationship” with Facebook that allowed him to serve up the anti-choice ads via the social network. But a Facebook spokesperson told Rewire that company policies prohibit ads that "make implications, directly or indirectly, about a user’s personal characteristics, including medical condition or pregnancy"—in other words, ads that suss out that you might be pregnant based on where you are. Google's Ad Exchange prohibits such advertising, too.
In interviews with another anti-choice news site, Pregnancy Help News, VanHorn said the campaign’s messaging included ads with titles such as, “Pregnancy Help,” “You Have Choices” and “You’re Not Alone." She said that ads led users to a landing page with information about abortion alternatives and access to a live chat with a "Bethany pregnancy support specialist."
The campaign, she said, was so successful that Bethany already has plans to expand it.
“Making a decision to have an abortion—there’s a fairly small window to making that decision. For example, if you have a 1-800 number [ad] and they click on it, you’re instantaneously connected," Flynn told Pregnancy Help News. “It’s one person staring at one screen all day, and to put info on that screen is pretty powerful."
The law may keep anti-choice activists 100 feet away from a clinic, but there is no virtual fence to keep them from entering the intimate space inside your phone. It is a digital loophole that allows activist rhetoric to reach women during trying times. There is one fix though: turn off location tracking on your phone.