A Certain Disquiet with Targeted Advertising


The Frown

Yesterday I was searching on Google for a children’s book by an author called J.P. Martin. His “Uncle” books went out of print years ago but have been recently revived by a number of publishers and, most recently of all, one crowd-funding effort saw the release of the whole series in one volume. I checked on Amazon.com and saw the books were available from different sellers at a range of prices. I ended the search and went onto some other tasks.

This morning I signed into Facebook and uploaded a photograph to my “timeline”. Whilst doing so, I noticed an advert on the right hand side of my Facebook page. It was an advert for the newly completed book of the “Uncle” series by J.P.Martin.

As I noticed the ad (This of course happens time after time every day), I felt a small disquiet at this “intrusion” into my private digital space. Now this could proceed in several different ways…

I could be angry that I’m clearly being “watched” or, at least, my online behaviour is being watched, even if my name and address is not being disclosed. If that is the case, the advert isn’t directed to me personally, but to my behavioural pattern that allows an advert to be targeted at me, even if my identity isn’t known. The algorithm here is pretty simple: This “Number” accessed information about a book on sale yesterday; this same number is online again, and there’s a slot to put an advert in, so the advert for this same book is targeted.

The Reason

So, why the disquiet? Isn’t this just really simple and clever?

I say no. Quite the opposite. It’s dumb and the motive is to nudge me back into a process I had freely chosen to let go of. I ended that search as a conscious decision. That was my free choice. I might even have wanted to entirely forget that search. It could have been a search for funeral services for a relative of mine who had died – to perhaps buy a wreath. Now, here I am, perhaps wanting a clear head. And what do I get? A forced reminder of yesterday.

This is the root of my disquiet. it is the use of social media in ways that are clumsy, potentially insensitive, even cruel, and even forcing.

Of course, the corporations behind these ads might innocently say: We just thought you might have forgotten and this was a benevolent reminder…

Differing Views

Well,it’s up to each and every one of us to decide whether we trust such seemingly kind motives. In a purely technical sense, I had stopped that search and moved on. There are good reasons why we move on from things. There are good reasons why we forget after moving on. Forced reminders seem to have no place in that. When I do want a reminder like that, I’ll tend to “switch it on” in my life, by choosing certain trusted friends to nudge me when I need a nudge. A faceless corporation isn’t one of them.

A second view is that these platforms are free, so what do I expect? I can’t argue with that, though I do go with the view that they are not free at all. I use these services with my own time and energy; the providers benefit in all kinds of ways, but mostly through advertising. So, targeting me with ads is the only way I can get this for free (just as in the world of television). Well, if that is true, all this advert has done is reduced my likelihood of buying that book from that supplier. Genius! If the advert creates disquiet, I think it defeats it own purpose and disappears up its own ass.

I’m being very specific here. Where adverts are targeted, they need to be targeted in intuitively helpful ways. They need to be adverts that do not EVER intrude upon a human being’s personal and private FLOW. The algorithms need to be written with two elements at their core: respect and sensitivity.

A Way Forward

A respectful advert will never be one that has failed to notice that I ended a search in its direction at a point in the past in a way which suggests I moved on from that product or service. Respectful ads are respectful because they display genuine consciousness – emotional intelligence. They are responses to my ongoing narrative.

A sensitive advert is able to tap into that narrative specifically, subtly and with nuance. Having identified I was looking at wreaths for a funeral yesterday, and then noting that I ended that search, it does not then target me the next day with life insurance or healthcare insurance adverts. But it does not I am checking out travel costs, looking for hotels in a particular city, and it might well offer me cheaper flights to that exact city, and even transfer services from the airport. Sensitive adverts are specifically responsive to the unfolding narrative, in real-time. Respectful adverts know when “Not to” – they divert insensitive content away from a targeted ad slot on a social media page.

I do not believe it is impossible for these algorithms to be written. But they will need to draw much more on the “rules” inherent in the realms of emotional intelligence and conscious business, than in behavioural marketing.

When a targeted advert is either insensitive or disrespectful, disquiet arises. This creates mistrust and reduces the impact of the advert, even into a negative score. Where an advert feels targeted in a respectful and sensitive way,  it can be experienced benevolently, as helpful, as effective, and this can lead to an authentic sale.

I will end this short essay by going even further.

I do not believe that “targeting” is the right metaphor any more (if it ever was). We should be talking about responsive, sensitive and respectful advertising. Then it will be more effective. And surely that’s a good thing?

About Paul Levy

Paul is a writer, thinker, facilitator, theatre-maker, and conversifier. He is the author of the book, Digital Inferno.

Posted on September 14, 2014, in Key themes. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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