Learning to Live with Targeted Advertising

By: Sean Willcox, @SeanWillcox_10

In these polarized times, there’s at least one thing that almost everyone can agree on: targeted advertising is creepy. A recent Consumer Reports study found that 85% of online consumers oppose Internet ad tracking, and are unwilling to trade their personal data, even anonymously, for the sake of being shown ads that might be more relevant to them (http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/news/2014/05/most-consumers-oppose-internet-ad-tracking/index.htm). There’s no denying that there’s something inherently invasive about being shown an advertisement that clearly reflects knowledge of your browsing history. Particularly because advertisers and social media sites don’t necessarily have to ask your permission before sharing your personal details with each other. The increased sophistication of targeting technology has also upped the creepiness factor. For example, geo-targeting is a technique that uses GPS technology to track the location of mobile phone users to show certain advertisements only to people within a specific geographic radius. For reference, law enforcement officials require a court order to track the physical location of citizens through their phones. There also exists an alarming number of stories online of people that claim advertisers are using the microphones in their phones to show them advertisements based on the things they are talking about with their friends (OK, so maybe this is a Reddit conspiracy theory but it’s not as implausible as you might think http://www.webpronews.com/facebook-listens-2015-02/). But could our uncomfortableness with targeted marketing be a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

Because let’s be honest, targeted ads are actually pretty useful too. There’s no way to avoid advertising online, so if you have to see an ad why not have it be for something that’s relevant to your life and personal preferences? Targeted marketing also creates a win-win scenario for retailers and consumers. Manufacturers and retailers can keep their marketing costs down by ensuring their ads are only seen by the “right” audience, which in turn allows them to price their merchandise lower. At the same time, consumers see fewer ads for products and services that hold no interest for them. While there’s something intrinsically unsettling about being tracked by advertisers, there’s also an undeniable value in only seeing ads for products you care about. If you’ve been searching for flights to Hawaii for the past three weeks, it really is kind of nice to see ads for hotels in Honolulu on your Facebook feed. The information about our browsing history is out there, at least by being used to create customized ads that information is being put to good use. There’s also the interesting paradox that we use Facebook and other social platforms to share personal information about our lives, including even our physical location. But when we see an ad on these sites that reflects these personal details, we freak-out. I think we need to embrace the fact that advertisers know what we’ve been searching for and accept targeted advertising as a fact of life. Advertisers get to promote their products to people who are actually interested in them, and we get a personalized “ad feed” of products that we have demonstrated an interest in.

This Article Has 8 Comments
  1. Brooke Halvorsen says:

    Nice post!

    I don’t actually remember a time when these targeted ads started populating my feed and my life. I don’t think it happened gradually either. One day, they weren’t there and the next they were IN YOUR FACE to stay. I definitely see both sides though. A) I am going to be working in digital marketing so erm sorry or your welcome?, B) Sometimes it is nice to see those places in Hawaii, or the things that I really need/ suit me/ I don’t need at all but that is sweet too, but then C) Leave me alone and stop monitoring my life, how am I going to be a well balanced individual with an array of interests if I just see the same content that the algorithms say should appeal to me personally over and over and over and over and over again.

    Also I have never heard this saying before and it made me laugh and then re-think my laughter: “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”

  2. Evan Tanaka says:

    Great post! I have always found targeted ads to be a bit creepy, but the more I start clicking on them, the more I realize that this tech knows me pretty well. I actually stumbled across a few products that I have purchased from these ads, so I can’t say I don’t like them entirely. But I will say that it is slightly creepy when I look something up online and it immediately appears in my Instagram feed.

  3. Lauren Sokol says:

    Hi Sean,

    I totally agree with you and also wonder if there is a big difference in how different generations view this. I know my parents aren’t huge fans of privacy violating marketing tactics. My former boss who is in her mid-30s (and not working in a marketing related field) commented to me that she didn’t mind it, and I am starting to feel the same. It seems like as targeted advertising through social media becomes more of a regular thing, consumers won’t know the difference and will probably come to expect personalized advertising. I had a moment the other day where Hulu was advertising something to me that was not something that I liked or would have been interested in and I found myself getting annoyed at the ad – and to your point, that company wasted their ad dollars on me. Targeted advertising is definitely win-win for both consumer and advertiser.

    Thanks for your insights!

  4. Brittany Melo says:

    Great insights, Sean!

    It is a bit eery to sit back and wonder how many advertisements have been targeted towards me. I rarely acknowledge the fact that some of the advertisements I come across are targeted directly towards me (yikes)! It does seem like it would be some sort of an invasion of privacy, which makes it a little bit of a grey area. Then again, advertisements are used to target groups of individuals of the company’s choosing and if the company can utilize social networks to reach that goal – so be it!

  5. Great article! I think the thought of targeted advertisements on social media platforms is more creepy than the actual ads themselves. The part of this article that spoke to me the most was that there is value in seeing ads and products that you care about. I have found Pinterest to be another platform where I see tons and tons of targeted advertisements towards myself.

    I am curious to know what the solution to the “creepiness” factor would be in the next 10 years or so, if there even is one. Thanks for the food for thought.

  6. Olivia Determan says:

    Great post! I agree that targeted ads are pretty creepy when I really pause and think about them, but the ads also very useful like you said. I find it helpful that I only see ads that I am possibly interested in, but I also find it annoying when I see an ad for something over and over again. Take a $2,000 pair of shoes that I admire a lot, but would never buy. I do not need to see the ad for those shoes over and over again, I just feel sad that I can’t buy them. Or sharing an Amason account with my parents and getting ads for fishing gear on my Facebook page, not what I need but my dad probably wants to see it. There is always a margin of error. I also wish that there was some sort of option to x out of the ad, like a way to opt out and ask for a different one.

  7. Adam Kantor says:

    Targeted ads are totally “creepy” as you put it. Frankly, it makes me think about how telling our internet search history can be about us. Data is incredibly valuable for marketers. There have been countless films set in the future where the store is able to see your purchase history as soon as somebody enters the store. In reality, we are even more invasive than that, having your desires put in front on your face on every website you visit.

  8. Cyrus Heffernan says:

    I agree with you (and the other commenters) that, while targeted ads online are definitely a little creepy, they can also be very useful for the consumer. Just last week, I made an impulse purchase online based on a targeted ad I saw – I probably shouldn’t have spent those 25 bucks, but then again, there was a flash sale, but then again, I didn’t reeeeally need a new Bluetooth speaker – I guess I’m a little conflicted here. The point is, if I hadn’t seen that targeted ad, I would have been completely unaware of a four-hour sale that saved me $60 off MSRP.

    Also, I use an adblocker in Chrome, so that eliminates 90% of ads anyway. Oops.

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