I Messed Up All of My Ads
Years ago, I read a fascinating article in Forbes about Target’s advertising strategies. Target could analyze a customer’s purchases— say, multivitamins and unscented lotion — and predict if that particular shopper was pregnant.
They were so accurate that women were weirded out by getting mailers with coupons for baby stuff, before they had told anyone about the pregnancy. So Target mixed up the advertising, putting an ad for baby items with, say, a lawn mower. They took care to spy on women, but not let on how much they knew.
Companies can track your purchases based on the credit or debit card you use, so unless you make all your purchases in cash, they’re following you. This is why, for example, you’ll buy a T-shirt in a store, swipe your credit card, and then a few months later get a catalog from the company mailed to you.
I think about that sometimes when I see how specific online advertising has become. I click on a site and look at, say, a T-shirt. Then it follows me around the Internet.
“Remember that T-shirt you clicked on a week ago? Here it is, the T-shirt, remember? It’s red. But it also comes in blue. You put it in your cart but realized shipping was $9 and closed the page? Remember?!”
Then I’ll see an ad for, say, dog toys. And I think, “Ha! Silly advertisers, I don’t have a dog!” Is that ad a mistake, or are they just trying to throw me off?
I’m betting a mistake. For a recent school project, I looked up maybe fifty different dermatological diseases, medications, and biology concepts. My project was done over the course of a weekend, but my targeted ads immediately changed. I started seeing:
- ads for Medicare plans
- ads for medical school
- ads for dermatology-related medications
No matter where I went on the Internet, they were there. There was nowhere to click, “I’m done with my research. For real, you can stop now. I don’t need to see any more ads for plaque psoriasis treatment.”
The algorithm assumed those ads would be relevant to me, and kept going. It was quite some time before they finally stopped.
The New York Times has called these “stalker ads.” When you view a certain page or search for a specific term, web sites take notice. They’re able to serve you ads related to those clicks or keystrokes, even on other web sites. Search for a tool box? All of a sudden, your social media feed is now filled with tool boxes.
In Minority Report, the characters saw ads tailored to them when they were walking in a mall. Movie reviewers in 2002 talked about how chilling that would be in real life, and it’s pretty much here.
A lot of ads are based not only on what you’ve searched, but your location, your gender, your age, and what you’ve purchased in the past, even if it wasn’t online.
Companies say they’re just trying to give us what we’re interested in, and I don’t exactly blame them for trying to be precise with where their money goes. I remember the early days of the Internet, with popups and random flashing banner ads. I wasn’t a fan of those.
But if, say, you’re struggling with infertility, it can be distressing to see endless ads about baby items. And the amount they know about us can be a little startling.
A few years ago, I decided to be a vegetarian. I swear I never saw as many ads for hamburgers on social media as I did when I started searching for veggie items. I started seeing countless ads for fast food restaurants’ beef or chicken meals. My supermarket coupons (tied to a savings card that tracks all my purchases) at the register suddenly spat out coupons for $2 off raw meat.
Was I more cognizant of not eating meat, and therefore taking more notice when I saw those ads? Or were they trying to lure me back, perhaps thinking I wasn’t eating meat because of the cost? I don’t know.
More companies can take cues from Instagram, which made $2 billion off its ads last quarter. Instagram’s ads look like posts, and are often — at least in my experience — nicely shot and often relevant to my interests without being blatantly so (like the ads for the T-shirt). There do seem to be a lot of ads, though, and seeing the same companies over and over again can get a little tiring.
There are ways to keep your privacy secure, and the targeted ads at bay, but it takes some tech knowledge — and time. You can install an ad-blocker, for example, which I have on my computer but not my phone.
Some might say, “Don’t go on social media sites; they just exist to harvest your data.” And that’s a fair point, but at it’s unrealistic to think that everyone can delete their social media cold turkey. And one social media company will compile information on you even if you don’t have an account.
A few days ago, after some clothing shopping, I got my ads back to something a little more normal — if a little too personal. I showed someone an article on my phone, and he said, “Whoa, I like your ads.” I didn’t even need to glance over to remember what my ads had been lately: panties and bras.
After that, I found a solution: incognito mode.