The advertising echo chamber

My friend’s mother posted an article on my friend’s wall with respect to a set of privacy settings. As a matter of course, I do tend to read through such articles, since the endless maze of Facebook privacy settings tends to mean it’s well within the realm of possibility that I’ve missed one. I found yet another place where there were settings I’d missed – specifically my set of interests, upon which interest-based ad profiles are created. I proceeded to then remove all the data I could, though I’m quite sure that little, if any, is gone or will go away. My friend’s response to the article was this:
it’s nice getting ads that are relevant to me. If advertising​ is a necessary evil to keep costs low, I’d prefer to see things that are tailored for me personally.
His response did make me stop to think, as such things tend to.

Targeted ads are great for advertisers. It enables them to spend a bit more per ad while serving overall less ads and giving a higher level of return. I’m not intrinsically opposed to ads; this article in the New York Times sums up the problem perfectly. I held out for as long as I could, but ad overlays, subscribe to our newsletter” interstitials, and Chrome tabs with 400MBytes of used RAM for three paragraphs of text-based content brought me to the point where even I started utilizing ad blockers – and, by contrast, why I will never run ads here. As my friend pointed out, it’s at least partially a win for end users as well – an ad for a restaurant opening halfway across the country is a losing proposition for everyone, as is a Tesla ad for someone in an apartment complex or international air travel for someone without a passport. The fact of the matter is that I can’t blame both consumers and marketers for wanting ads and potential customers to align.

However, is there no utility for generally unrelated ads? I personally don’t use tampons, but knowing a few name brands may be helpful if I ever need to pick them up for whatever reason (or, conversely, know that I’m in the wrong aisle if I’m looking for toothpaste). I might not be financially able to fly to Tahiti between now and the end of the Trump administration, but what if I wanted to go on a more cost effective vacation two years from now? I could assume Florida or SoCal, but there’s no shortage of places to travel domestically. Have you ever stopped to think about your computer’s backup? Carbonite might be the most well-known name at a consumer level, but who knows what tomorrow brings? Altaro and Veeam are excellent. With John Deere getting the ire of farmers as a result of their fight against equipment repair, being aware of the existence of Kubota as a competitor might be worth knowing. If you’re not a homeowner, is there still value in knowing how solar panels are financed, or the types of pipes and other plumbing equipment are available? I’d say so.

Advertising as a whole has been distilled from “trying to educate consumers about a potential need which, conveniently, this product solves”, to “make consumers feel like they’d be better having what we’re selling”. Now yes, this clearly a generalization. There have always been creative ads, as well as ads that tried to appeal using information that were far from star examples of truth in advertising. At the same time, compare this Valtrex commercial and the Wikipedia article on genital herpes (no, I’m not linking it). If Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline can be of the persuasion that TV commercials for fibromyalgia or post-menopausal osteoporosis are worth airing, then I submit that there is a use for advertising that provides awareness over stressing immediate purchases.

It is for these reasons that I submit that perhaps an echo chamber of highly curated ads based on existing known needs may contribute to a lack of diversity of thought. I fully realize that leaving it up to the advertising industry to spend money on ad space to increase the overall understanding of our society isn’t exactly a winning expectation, but I also believe that interacting solely with like-minded people, seeing ads solely for things that are deemed relevant based on stated interests or activities, and interacting primarily with businesses who cater primarily to that particular group, ends up becoming a monoculture. If you want to see what I’m talking about, ask your friend to borrow their phone and spend 15 minutes browsing the internet, and see if their ads are anything like yours.

I removed all my interests from Facebook, because I don’t want targeted ads. While I’m sure they’ll target me anyway, I’d rather have at least a cursory awareness of what Nordstrom has on sale or new carbon fiber fishing poles, than to get an endless barrage of ads from Motorola or Samsung regarding phones I already know about.

But hey – if my thoughts on the matter were widespread, targeted ads wouldn’t be sustaining the internet as they are.

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