Monday, May 18, 2020

Targeted Advertising

If you're on Facebook (and don't lie, you totally are; how else would you get Aunt Karen's hilarious minion memes?) then by now you have experienced targeted advertisement.

Targeted advertising varies widely.  Sometimes, it's "customized" items that include a little tip of the hat to something "unique" to you.  For example, a tapestry with your last name, or a t-shirt that includes your birthdate and mental health issues.

Other times, it's simply based off of your demographic.  If you're in a certain age group, for example, you're going to get targeted for certain products.  Boomer?  Ad for a New York Times subscription.  Millennial?  Ad for a "hilariously offensive" card game that's just a knock-off of Cards Against Humanity.

And then, sometimes, it's based on your search history.  Visiting Etsy to search for felted bluebirds might result in ads with the very same felted bluebirds you were looking at earlier, which always gives me an uncanny sense of déjà vu.

Targeted advertising is something that has long been predicted by shows like Futurama, and is usually presented as a problematic facet of the modern-day dystopia.

But I have a unique and unpopular opinion: I like clowns.

Wait, no.  I meant to say, I like targeted advertising.

When it's done right, anyway.

The lazy customization of t-shirts has been long ridiculed as transparently ridiculous.  No one gives a shit if you were born in March, keep skipping doses on your Valium, and once saw a zebra in real life at the Cincinnati zoo.  The text is always far too wordy and trying a little too desperately to come across as badass.  There are two categories of "targeted tees:" the ones marketed to men ("I have anger issues!") and the ones marketed to women ("I belong to my man, who has anger issues!").  Both are terrible and I suspect they are only ever purchased as gifts for people who are difficult to buy gifts for, probably due to their anger issues or mental illness.  (The shirts always mention these.)

 Girl, run.

Recently I've begun seeing books and mugs and other products besides t-shirts that are lazily customized.  Since bringing home a baby, Facebook has desperately been trying to get me to purchase a book "guaranteed" to make me cry.  The book is about how much I love my son and it allows me to customize the characters to look like me and my son.  Here, targeted advertising has failed once again, because my son and I already look like generic cartoon characters.  He looks like a normal, standard baby, and I look like a slightly older normal, standard baby.  Checkmake, dumb book.

I helped inspire both bitmoji and the gay 1993 Ken doll.

The second kind of targeted advertising also frustrates me, not so much before it pigeon-holes people by demographic, but because it is terrible at doing so.  It is clear to me that advertising algorithms don't know what the hell to do with us early '80s Millennials.  A few of the things I've been marketed recently include an item called "Note Box," which is a $50 box of paper, a game called "Drink or Dare," an 8-sided productivity die, and something called "Doodly."

The problem with all these ads is this: they're filling a hole that doesn't exist.  You can write your loved ones a nice note on nice stationary without spending $50 on a box.  You can play Truth or Dare while drinking without needing to buy a bunch of printed cards.  You can assign a task to a number and roll a die without needing a special die.  You can probably even doodle without "Doodly."  These items are all so unnecessary and stupid that I can't help but feel like I'm on an unaired episode of Shark Tank every time I log onto Facebook and see a 2-for-1 deal on nose puppies.

But then there's the third kind of advertising, which is based on a user's search history.  Here's the thing.

I love this kind of targeted advertisement.

If I searched for something to purchase, I must have wanted it, and sometimes, suggestions based off of my search history hit the mark perfectly.  I remember after I got engaged, Facebook briefly began pitching me ideas for where to have my wedding registry.  But when I failed to engage with or click any of the Bloomingdale's links, it realized that wasn't for me, and went back to asking me if I'd like to rent an industrial pressure-washer, purchase a bulk order or yarmulkes, or follow a page of nihilist memes.

The issue of targeted ads isn't really whether or not targeted ads are good or not, but whether or not we, the users, are going to take responsibility for our own self-control.  Of course I'd like to rent an industrial pressure-washer.  This is a spot-on (or rather, a spot-off) suggestion for me.

 God, it's so satisfying.

I like the ad and I move on, aware that renting an industrial pressure-washer is the sort of luxury I might reserve for my birthday, and that I can entertain the fantasy of renting an industrial pressure-washer without actually throwing my money after one.

Ultimately, I believe this is the real reason people hate targeted advertising.  Some of it is so bad it's good.

Some of it, however, is so good that it's tempting.  And people really hate that, not because they hate the products, but because those ads are highlighting a hard truth about their own ability to be swayed by advertising.

I've heard plenty of people complain about targeted ads, not because the ad was wrong, but because it was too right.  People wanted to buy the products pictured and felt that the ads were making it difficult to resist spending their money on items they hadn't previously even known they wanted.

I remember the first time I saw dog figurines dressed up as the Avengers, or a shirt that said "I like turtles and red wine and donating blood and think Jeremy Renner is under-rated and once mistook Dan Akroyd for Bill Murray."  I was like, yes!  I get excited, seeing the ad space on my Facebook populated with Iron Man tchotchkes.  And so help me, after some red wine and blood donations, I am tempted to buy the tchotchkes.

The solution is not, however, to claim targeted ads themselves are wrong.  The solution is to hold ourselves accountable for good money management and exercising self-control when we spend on non-essential items.  The solution is to recognize that we live in an overly materialistic society that's really, really good at trying to persuade us to buy mass-produced crap, but that ultimately, it's up to us whether or not we want to spend our money, and that we can appreciate something without owning it.

Your cats can't read.
If they could, they would probably advise you not to buy this.

The only reason people hate targeted advertising is because it reveals an ugly truth about ourselves: that we're basic bitches who likes turtles and red wine and Jeremy Renner, and that not only are we predictable, but we lack self-discipline.

"But wait," you say.  "What about privacy?"

Let's be honest with ourselves for a moment about how much we truly value our privacy if we are putting our full legal names and birthdates on Facebook.  Facebook is free to use, which means you're not the customer: you're the product.  Your existence on Facebook is, ironically, a sort of targeted ad to the people buying the ad space.

"Are there guys born in March with anger issues?" ask the advertisers.  "Are there guys named Greg who are born in March and are off their meds again?  'Cause I wanna sell those guys a shirt."

If you want to protect your privacy, then filling out those "fun" surveys that ask you questions like your pet's first name or your high school mascot are a hell of a lot more dangerous than targeted ads.  If you want to protect your privacy, stop creating "free" Pinterest accounts that tell the site exactly what sort of things you like and how they should market to you.  If you want to protect your privacy, stop making "free" selfie avatars that tell Facebook what your demographic information is, and stop tagging it with your social security number.

If your targeted advertising is a little too perfect, then you probably only have yourself to blame.  You can get mad about it, or you can work to fix it.

Ultimately, it's not the Internet's job to protect your privacy any more than it's the Internet's job to avoid offering you tempting ads.  The Internet isn't a malicious person, but a series of algorithms, and you can hardly blame the Facebook messenger for trying to sell you a Kim Kardashian Slytherin scarf after you took a "free" quiz titled "Which Kardashian and Harry Potter House are you?"

This is a real product.

If you can't control your actions, and take responsibility for your own spending habits and data protection, you really have no business being on the Internet at all.  Sites that target ads aren't stealing your information; they're using information that you willingly provided, and it's not their fault that you lack the restraint not to click on the ad.

I like having a Facebook page populated by ads for items I enjoy looking at.  I don't buy them, because I don't need them.  I like Amazon's recommendations for me, because they're often correct.  But ultimately, my decision to type in my credit card number is up to me.  Targeted ads are a sort of buffet of consumerism, and it's not the buffet's fault if you're going to eat three plates' worth of crab ragnoons and mini-quiches.

When you stop thinking of targeted ads as a "trick" and instead start thinking of yourself as a person with self-control who simply doesn't need the stuff Facebook tells you that you need, targeted ads can be a source of amusement, and/or readily ignored.

All that being said, if you do happen to be the type of person who is easily persuaded to part with your money and doesn't mind targeted advertising or rampant out-of-control consumerism, have I got a shirt for you!

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