When Gillian Brockell was pregnant, she excitedly posted updates about her baby bump on Instagram, with fun hashtags, and clicked on Facebook ads for maternity clothes. She was tagged in baby shower pictures and had created an Amazon registry.
All this online activity surrounding her upcoming pregnancy meant that every time she was on social media or googled something, ads popped up for maternity, parenting and baby items. As a mom-to-be this added to her joy.
But then the baby stopped moving and her Google searches took a dramatic turn. Instead of “holiday dress maternity plaid” she was searching “is this Braxton hicks” and “baby not moving.”
Brockell delivered the baby, Sohan Singh Gulshan, stillborn. After his birth she felt great sadness, which became worse when she logged onto her computer and ads for baby items kept hounding her. The biggest insult came when credit company Experian sent an email to Brockell, nudging her to "finish registering her baby" — even though she never started.
Frustrated, Brockell posted an open letter to tech companies, asking them to be more sensitive when it comes to their targeted ads and algorithms. And the response to her letter has been overwhelming.
“Please, Tech Companies, I implore you: If you’re smart enough to realize that I’m pregnant, that I’ve given birth, then surely you’re smart enough to realize that my baby died, and can advertise to me accordingly, or maybe just maybe, not at all,” she wrote in the letter she shared on Twitter that was also published by her employer the Washington Post.
While she was able to turn off Facebook's parenting ads, that didn't solve her problem. She started receiving ads for adoption, even though she hadn't even thought of it and definitely did not search for it.
“I am miles away from anything but grieving,” she wrote, adding: “And, no, I have not been googling about adoption.”
People responded to her moving letter. Computer science teachers said they wanted to share her story with their students so they’d learn the true consequences of data science. And, people who experienced pregnancy loss reached out to comfort Brockell.
“Sending buckets of love your way. I lost my first at 39w5d, and I am too familiar with this exact predicament. We are so terrible, imo as a society of dealing with this type of loss,” one Twitter use wrote.
Kristin Vassallo felt heartbroken when she read Brockell’s letter and completely related to it. Six years ago, she delivered her son, Thomas James Severino, at 20 weeks, and he did not survive. At the time, she posted a message on Facebook to inform her friends and family. While that message had an unexpected benefit of people reaching out to her and sharing their experiences with pregnancy loss, the pregnancy, baby and maternity ads didn’t stop.
“It was terrible to see the ads. It was so hard,” Vassallo, who lives in New Jersey with her two daughters, who are 4 and 9, told TODAY. "(Losing a child) is such devastating pain."
Seeing the ads added to her sadness. But Vassallo really felt stunned when Facebook memories selected the message she shared about Thomas’ death on the first anniversary of his death (and every anniversary after).
“The ‘On This Day’ feature brings this up. I think ‘Oh what cute pictures’ and then there’s this long and heartbreaking note,” she said.
Vassallo admires Brockell's strength.
"It was really unselfish of her to share," she said.
But, it wasn’t just parents who responded to Brockell. Rob Goldman, a Facebook advertising executive, replied.
“I am so sorry for your loss and your painful experience with our products," Goldman wrote on Twitter. "We have a setting available that can block ads about some topics people may find painful — including parenting."
While Brockell thanked him, she suggested something other than forcing grieving parents to search for block ads preferences in the settings.
“It’s too confusing when you’re grieving. That’s why I was suggesting a keyword like 'stillborn' triggering an ad break,” she wrote.