Emilie Spiegel is 34 years old, single and has no interest in freezing her eggs.
“I am very open to having children one day if it works out,” Ms. Spiegel said. But right now? “I am not seeking fertility treatment in any way, shape or form.”
The ads in her Instagram feed suggest otherwise.
During one recent scroll she encountered an ad from Extend Fertility showing a pink smoothie strewn with beautiful berries. “If you can afford this,” it said, followed by: “Egg freezing is more affordable than you think.”
“I found this to be particularly offensive,” said Ms. Spiegel, who estimated that she sees ads for egg freezing at least once a week. “It’s possible to be a woman and not want to have a baby.”
Ms. Spiegel, who lives in Brooklyn, didn’t have to go far to find another friend who had experienced the same thing.
Layla Dartry, 33, her co-worker and a fellow Brooklynite, estimated that each week on Instagram she sees 25 to 30 ads for egg freezing from a few different companies. The latest one, from Trellis, showed a bright, airy clinic and a slogan: “Fertility meets freedom.”
“It’s just ridiculous,” said Ms. Dartry, who is married and said she had never looked into egg freezing. “We’re like, what is this? Some kind of conspiracy based on age?”
With the United States fertility industry expected to reach $2 billion in revenue this year and the online baby product industry ballooning to $7 billion in revenue, companies are looking to social media — especially Instagram and Facebook — to target women during their childbearing years.
“Social media sites like Facebook have immense amounts of data they can use to allow for ultra-tailored ads,” said Heather Shoenberger, an assistant professor of advertising at the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications at Penn State University. “Unfortunately, digital targeting is never 100 percent perfect, so there is some error here.”
At best, those errors are a nuisance — at other times they can be heartbreaking.
Gillian Brockell, a journalist at The Washington Post, wrote an open letter to tech companies in December about the relentless parenting ads that continued after her baby was stillborn.
Following her child’s death, the ads in her social media feed looked “exactly, crushingly, the same,” she wrote. “A Pea in the Pod. Motherhood Maternity. Latched Mama. Every damn Etsy tchotchke I was considering for the nursery.”
Facebook, which owns Instagram, allows users to hide advertising topics related to alcohol, pets and parenting, but acknowledges online that the process isn’t perfect. Instagram does not have a similar tool, although Facebook’s ad setting is designed to carry over to a user’s Instagram account, too.
Ms. Brockell said that she tried turning off the parenting ads on Facebook, but they still creep into her feeds.
“It definitely decreased, but I got an ad featuring a pregnant woman as recently as this morning,” she said on Monday.
“We don’t want people seeing unwanted ads,” Joe Osborne, a Facebook spokesman, said on Thursday. “We may not catch every ad, but we’re continuing to invest in machine learning to improve detection.”
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According to a 2017 survey of 16- to 65-year-olds by Kantar Millward Brown, a marketing research group, 69 percent of the 14,500 respondents from 45 countries said that ads had become more intrusive than they were three years earlier.
Not only are ads appearing everywhere, some online advertisers are “stalking users” and retargeting people who might have explored certain products in the past, said Eunjin Kim, an assistant professor of strategic public relations at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
One in four internet users in the United States block ads, according to the research firm eMarketer, which called 2018 “a year of consumer backlash” because “users are concerned with how their data is being used to target them.”
“The one problem with relevance is that it can creep consumers out,” the report said.
Allison O’Regan, who is single and lives in Hoboken, N.J., saw egg-freezing ads show up on her Instagram feed earlier this year, and vented about it on Twitter, saying that she felt bullied.
“As a woman of this age I’m already acutely aware of the biological clock,” said Ms. O’Regan, 27, in an interview on Friday.
Looking at egg freezing ads “makes me feel like I should be catching up for lost time,” she said, adding that several friends of hers are either engaged or married and thinking about starting families. “It’s just kind of like a reminder that I’m behind some other people in my life.”
Boutique fertility companies have multiplied, even amid skepticism from some in the medical community who worry that women will forgo more thorough evaluations or make hasty decisions without the input of their doctors.
Kindbody, an egg-freezing start-up that also provides in vitro fertilization, is introducing a fertility bus next week that will offer on-the-spot hormone testing to women in New York City. The company, which also has a retail location in New York, plans to expand to California later this year.
It also advertises on Instagram, Facebook and Google.
“Our ads are generally targeted to women between the ages of 27 and 42, and women and couples that have expressed interest in fertility services,” said Rebecca Silver, the director of marketing for Kindbody. “The targeting on these sites isn’t perfect, but we do everything we can to make the content itself unoffensive.”
While the company has seen thousands of patients for fertility hormone testing and over 500 patients for full fertility assessments, only about 100 patients have so far chosen to participate in egg freezing or an I.V.F. cycle, Ms. Silver said.
Trellis, another start-up, partners with social media influencers to promote its business, said Jennifer Huang, the company’s chief marketing officer. Its Instagram account, awash in peach tones and egg imagery, recently advertised a seminar headlined by a “wellness advocate” who would “share some wisdom and discuss all the complicated stuff.”
According to Ms. Huang, digital advertising brings in almost 75 percent of their leads, meaning those who have signed up for the newsletter or attended events or appointments. More than 50 percent of their leads come from social alone, she said.
The company is still gathering data on how many of those women will proceed with egg freezing, she added, because the process from start to finish can take as long as 90 days.
Modern Fertility, which offers a $159 fertility hormone test and a consultation with a fertility nurse, aims to share “clinically sound, neutral information” on its social feeds and website, said Carly Leahy, a co-founder, pointing to a recent infographic on Instagram illustrating that one in 10 women has polycystic ovarian syndrome.
The company, which started in 2017 after one of its founders faced a $1,500 bill for fertility testing at a doctor’s office, received $70,000 in pre-order purchases in less than a month, Ms. Leahy said. Modern Fertility now has more than 20,000 followers on Instagram and was recently recognized by Ad Age as Start-Up of the Year.
“We don’t push women toward any one decision or procedure (nor do we make money through referrals, or selling data),” Ms. Leahy said in an email. “In our broader space, we have seen advertising and marketing strategies that play into fear. We think this is unacceptable. This kind of coercion isn’t just unfair to women, it ultimately isn’t a good long-term strategy.”
If you’re the recipient of unwanted targeted ads, there are several things you can do to whittle them away, like installing ad blockers, using private browsing sessions, resetting your mobile advertising I.D. and clearing cookies on each of your devices.
Tech companies including Google, Facebook, Twitter and Apple also offer instructions on how to opt out of receiving certain types of ads.
As for Ms. Brockell, she said she uses private and incognito modes when she’s online and is posting to Facebook “somewhat less” than she used to. She uses Instagram differently, too.
And if she were to get pregnant again, she isn’t planning to reveal much online. “I will never in my life post another #babybump picture,” she said.
Christina Caron is a parenting reporter. Before joining The Times in 2014, she spent a decade editing and writing for broadcast news and also worked as a clinical research coordinator at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. @cdcaron
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