Teresa Valdez Klein: The Art of Subvertising on Facebook

I loved this talk by Teresa Valdez Klein on purchasing Facebook ads to counter the negative messages sent to women about our bodies, our “need” to be married to a man (any man will do!), about our need for engagement rings and other stuff to be complete.

There’s some unfortunate use of ableist language and some class privilege evident in the talk, but it’s still a pretty cool subversion of “traditional” (sexist, heterosexist, cissexist, racist, classist, and ableist)¬†advertising. It’s a great idea that could be applied in all sorts of ways.

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments on how “subvertising” can be used to counter harmful messages on other issues.


None of us can fully measure up to what is expected up and so everyone is insecure about something. This is the story about something I’ve been insecure about, how Facebook made it worse, and what I did to make it better.

The source of my insecurity was that, even in 2011, we still have this idea that there’s no decision a woman can make that gets as much social support as the decision to marry a man. Now that’s not a bad decision. In fact, it’s one I made a few years ago, it just didn’t happen to be to the right guy. Great guy, just not my guy, and when it fell apart, I just didn’t know what to do with myself.

It was at that point that I started to experience this social pressure cooker, this idea that has been foisted upon women since time immemorial, that if you’re not married by a certain age, you’re going to start to curdle.

And what made it worse was Facebook. Sean Parker, who helped to make Facebook what it is, likes to call the news feed a decentralized relevancy filter, which basically means your friends are telling you what’s relevant. And what my friends were telling me was relevant was getting engaged. A lot of getting engaged. And, well, this wasn’t to say I wasn’t happy for them, because I was, and I’m not really that crazy, so I know they weren’t getting engaged just to make me feel bad, but it’s sort of the aggregate of all of this made me feel I was peeking into a club I no longer belonged to. But never fear, married and engaged friends, it really wasn’t the worst part. The worst part was the ads.

See, on Facebook, the ads are targeted at you based on who you are, instead of Google where you search for something, and you find it, and you go off, right? Facebook is telling you what you should want based on who your are – your age, your sexual orientation, your relationship status [laughing]. And so when I changed my relationship status from engaged to single, the ads got nasty. Really, really nasty.

So what are somethings that as a newly single woman I was supposed to want – if you remember the muffin top ad, can you boo for me, please? Will you boo? Yes, bring it! Muffin top ad people, shame on you, shame on you! Making women feel bad about themselves.

What else was I supposed to want? I was supposed to want to date, right, because I had to go get another guy stat, oh my god! Wait, you want me to go and meet total strangers and make small talk? I haven’t been on a date with a stranger in seven years! You’ve gotta be crazy! And I’m not damaged enough as it is, right?

And then of course there’s just the ads that tell you that you’re totally messed up, and no one’s going to love you, and oh my god, all the mistakes I’m making. I’m too clingy. No wait, I’m too independent. No wait, I don’t make enough compromises in relationships. Oh no, crap, I make too many compromises in relationships and I’m never going to spend $40,000 on a wedding! Ahhhh!

You know the funny thing about these wedding ads? They target them to single women too, because ladies, they’re priming the pump with our lives. The marketers don’t really care whether you’re happy in your marriage as long as you buy a ring.

All of this added up to one big existential sad for me, and I can admit that I probably wasn’t a whole heck of a lot of fun to be around at that point. So, sorry guys. But when you’re sad, and you’re angry, sometimes you come up with great ideas. So you know how people like to say that [deep voice] “Social media has democratized access to publishing.” Well, social media has also democratized access to advertising.

See, I can’t afford a billboard in Times Square and I can’t afford a Superbowl spot, but I can afford a Facebook ad. And so I started making them. And if you have a credit card and $5, you can do this, too.

So I started making ads, targeted to women, telling them the things that I wished that somebody would have told me. Things like “Your body is just fine” and “You don’t need to get married to be happy with your life.” And it was at that point that I realized that if I can do this, anyone can do this [well, not strictly true – anyone with a credit card, money to spare, and a computer, which actually rules out a lot of people! – G.].

Remember, you’re all insecure about something, you’re all humans. And so you can – I guess imagine this scenario. Let’s say you’re a gay adult, and you live in Seattle, Washington, and your life is amazing. But when you lived in El Paso, Texas, and people were pushing you down the stairs in high school, not so much. Well, you can make an It Gets Better video, you can post it to the It Gets Better Project, but then you can go and you can buy a Facebook ad, and you can target it at kids 13-20 living in El Paso, Texas. And you can tell them, “Life gets better!” It’s not just, “Hey gay kids generally,” it’s, “Hey you! Walking the same halls I walked. It gets better.”

My campaign has reached almost 3 million women, for less than the cost of what I’m wearing [hard to tell from the slides but it appears to have cost her $435 – which again, is an amount far from “anyone” can afford to spend, on a personal ad campaign or on one outfit!], and it has helped me. I don’t know if it has impacted anyone else, but it has certainly impacted me, because I know I’m more that what’s marketed to me.


12 Comments on “Teresa Valdez Klein: The Art of Subvertising on Facebook”

  1. moonchild11 says:

    aside from the $435 dress thing, I thought this was a pretty great video. Facebook ads have always left me feeling pretty low. It’s cool to know that people who can afford $435 dresses are willing to use some of their money to help make the world a better place!

  2. Geez, FaceBook ads are so freaking annoying! And weird! I got one the other day for Mormon wedding dresses. When my status is “single” and my religious preference is “Episcopagan”. WTF?! Every time I get an ad about body image or societal expectations, I quickly mark it as “not relevant” or “offensive”, but it doesn’t seem to change the tone of the advertising much.

    I do love this idea, though. Now I have to go share it.

    • Grace says:

      FB ads are definitely not the most precisely targeted, lol. I seem to have an ability to filter most ads out – I barely notice them most of the time.

      Thanks for sharing :)

  3. Uncle Max says:

    There’s a much simpler answer – Firefox + AdBlockPlus. I never see a facebook advertisements.

    Hmmm wonder if I could get away with making an ad recommending adblockplus?

    • Grace says:

      Lol, fair enough. Let us know how the anti-ad ad works out! ;)

      Thanks for the comment and welcome to the blog!

      • Uncle Max says:

        BTW, I wasn’t trying to dismiss your original point – advertising, to young girls especially, is pernicious and getting worse.

        I only wish I could afford the ads

    • Emily says:

      Exactly! It’s wonderful. I always get kind of weirded out when I use someone’s computer without an adblocker. It’s kind of interesting to see what I get, though.

  4. 32000days says:

    Facebook has advertising?

    Oh, right, I used to see ads there, before I stopped seeing ads there.

    Installing AdBlock[1] takes like three minutes and reshapes the web into something much more worth viewing. Rather than subvert the ad, release it completely.


    [1] free, I have no financial or reputational interest in the software

    • 32000days says:

      oops, didn’t see the comment above – consider this a +1 for Uncle Max

    • Grace says:

      Like I said to Uncle Max, it’s a fair enough point – but the thing is, it’s not just about Facebook. It’s about the harmful messages society in general sends to women (and lots of other groups) that our worth is determined by the things or status we can acquire. Adblock plus only address the problem on an individual level, while subvertising makes a positive counter message available to huge numbers of people.

      • 32000days says:

        Point taken – I realize you (and TVK in the video) are making a broader “AdBusters”-ish point somewhat orthogonal to the “ads bother me – I don’t want to watch them” impulse that drives people to create, distribute, or download tools such as AdBlock.

        Admittedly, it’s a somewhat separate question – but I’m still curious why greater numbers of people don’t use such tools, and thus completely bypass these dodgy advertising messages.

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