Targeted ads are one of the most destructive trends in the world. Here’s why | Arwa Mahdawi
W.e have been arguing ad nauseam about political advertising on social media lately. Should it be regulated? Does Twitter have the right to ban political advertising from its platform? Is Facebook Wrong Refusing to Check Political News for Facts? Is it possible to hold free and fair elections when social media enables the mass distribution of misleading information and targeted propaganda?
Such discussions are obviously necessary. But we shouldn’t miss the forest for the trees. It is not just very targeted political advertising that threatens our democracy, but very targeted advertising. As David Heinemeier Hansson, founder of the programming language Ruby on Rails, recently tweeted: “The debate about targeted political advertising [sic] dances temptingly close to the end: NO ADVERTISING SHOULD BE AIMED ON PERSONAL INFORMATION! “
Hear hear! The advertising industry (which I’ve been in for many years) assumes that the more targeted an ad is, the better. It’s better for the consumer because instead of seeing irrelevant products, they get something that interests them – backpacks, not hatchbacks. It’s better for the brand because they’re optimizing their media spend. This is gospel. If you were to argue that you should ignore the plethora of personal data and go back to simple context-centric targeting – for example, placing ads for cars on car-related websites instead of targeting individual car enthusiasts – you would laugh out of the building.
But personalized advertising is no better for anyone. They turned the internet into a surveillance nightmare. The fact that marketers can show me yoga mat ads immediately after booking a yoga class isn’t worth trading my privacy for. Not worth it to be followed online by a yoga mat that I clicked once. It’s not worth having a million activity trackers analyze each of my movements. There’s no point in draining my phone’s battery with the data-guzzling ads that make many parts of the internet borderline.
We need to limit the use of personal data for any targeted advertising
And it’s unclear how effective personalized ads are. The digital advertising ecosystem is full of scams and there is very little transparency about where online advertising revenue is going. Facebook is reportedly about to pay millions in a settlement after it inflated its video viewer numbers. And Comscore, one of the main companies responsible for measuring digital advertising success, was recently charged with misreporting its earnings and misreporting customer numbers. There was no admission of wrongdoing, but instead settled the case for $ 5 million (£ 3.8 million). Last year, Procter & Gamble cut its digital advertising spend by more than $ 200 million after much of it was wasted. The New York Times found that advertising revenue did not decrease when it stopped behavioral targeting in Europe (a move sparked by the introduction of the GDPR data protection regulation). Our privacy has apparently been traded for a lot of hype.
However, I will tell you what is not hype or exaggeration. The fact that targeted advertising, along with the digital economy’s reliance on ad-based business models, is one of the most destructive trends in the modern world. It has led to the spread of fake news and clickbait. It fueled surveillance capitalism and normalized the ubiquitous tracking and data mining. If we want to do something about the spread of misinformation and the loss of trust in traditional institutions, it is not enough to regulate or scrutinize political advertising. We must take action against the use of personal data for any targeted advertising. Otherwise, democracy will continue to erode, one highly optimized click at a time.