Personalized ads get too personal

Alexandra Eydenberg, Online Editor

Ever wondered why the products mentioned in casual conversations end up on the screen as advertisements? Well, targeted advertising is to blame. 

Over the years, advertising morphed  from general, mass-broadcasted displays via newspapers, magazines, television or radio into personalized marketing tailored to each individual via their social media feeds. 

But has the advertising industry gone too far? In a world of incredible surveillance technology, companies are becoming increasingly reliant on invasive surveillance tactics to target their advertisements to potential consumers. 

Examples of advertising have been found as far back as the ancient Song dynasty .According to author Willliam M. O’Barr for John Hopkins University, advertising has been used as a means to initiate commerce and sales from businesses. Originally, storefront signs, street performances and spectacles created means of sales. However, due to advancements in technology over time, advertising has become more tailored to the individual consumer.

Metrics used to measure individuals’ data for advertising purposes began in the 1940s. According to MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, “Identity scoring emerges: the categorization of individuals to calculate the benefits or risks of lending credit to certain groups of people” as the first signs of surveillance advertising,” said Tanya Kant, Media and Cultural Studies lecturer from the University of Sussex.

Over the last 80 years, technology quickly evolved from simple metrics to direct data of an individual’s purchasing preferences. 

According to GCF Global, “Targeted advertising is a form of online advertising that focuses on the specific traits, interests and preferences of a consumer. Advertisers discover this information by tracking your activity on the Internet.”

But how does this data turn into ads for the perfect pair of leggings someone’s been wanting for months? 

According to the Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma”, the way social media companies make billions of dollars in revenue by selling ad space and the guarantee of purchase to these companies. 

“ It’s a little even trite to say now, but… because we don’t pay for the products that we use, advertisers pay for the products that we use,” said Aza Raskin, a writer interviewed in “The Social Dilemma.” “Advertisers are the customers. We’re the thing being sold,” To illustrate the monetary value in such sales, “Twitter generated $4.4 billion revenue in 2022,” according to the Business of Ads writer Mansoor Iqbal.  “90% of Twitter’s revenue came from advertising in 2022.”

Amid the mindless scrolling, apps such as Instagram and Tiktok place ads based on logistics ranging from Google searches to something that was mentioned in an in-person discussion about grocery lists. 

Spanish teacher Tara Jungels recounts instances in which she thought her phone was listening to her. 

After I bought a Toyota, I started seeing tons of ads for cars, specifically Toyotas,” said Jungels. “I went on a deep dive through the ads settings of Facebook, and I saw hundreds of ads that were being targeted to me ‘based on preferences.’ I had to uncheck and/or block every single one. It took days to finish.”

Over the last three years, due to increases in technology usage, digital advertising has become essential to product sales. 

Since the pandemic began, e-commerce has grown rapidly,” Forbes council member Nick Froehlich.said. “It is now a much larger part of how people shop, making up roughly 19% of global retail sales in 2020.”

Statistically speaking, businesses reap significantly better sales though the use of personalized advertisements. 

“About 91% of consumers are more encouraged to purchase when a brand personalizes its communication with them,” Froehlich said. “These curated messages focus on an audience’s demographics — who they are, what they like and what they are most likely to purchase.” 

According to Competitive Enterprise Institute author Alex Reinauer, small businesses would fizzle from the market without targeted advertising to encourage new customers. However, companies selling information such as addresses crosses a line for many users. 

When it comes to individual privacy and the sale of user information, people argue that social media platforms are exploiting their users for profit. However, many social media platforms actually disclose this information prior to signing up for their services.  

Users just don’t bother to read it. 

In a survey of 100 North students, only two said they read the terms of service agreement prior to signing up for a social media site. 

“I think companies intentionally provide excessive amounts of information just to say they disclosed their practices to the public, but the way they format their policy is nearly impossible to understand in basic terms,” junior Rylie Ruggirello said. 

Additionally, many average users believe that social media sites should not automatically have access to users’ information when they sign up. 

If I had the option, I would not consent to my data being sold, or to have ads targeted to me,” Jungels said. Currently, [consumers] only way to avoid this is to avoid the products entirely, but I think that’s so unrealistic because of how pervasive it is in everyday life. We have to have phones, we have to use the internet; corporations are taking advantage of this and of us.” 

Despite many governmental efforts to ban the selling of user data, none have managed to get past the introduction stage. 

The Banning Surveillance Advertising Act seeks to make all search engines like DuckDuckGo, eliminating consumer choice altogether,” Competitive Enterprise Institute author Alex Reinauer said. 

Remaining ignorant to companies stealing and selling their users data halts the need for action. It is important to understand exactly what is signed off upon registration. “I would advise students to rethink their presence on social media and other sites that steal their information. The more present you are, the easier it is for these companies to steal the information” said Jungels.