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Advertising in the digital age

Although advertising is not new, due to digital technologies people are now attacked with ads every day, 24 hours a day. As more data about us continues to be collected through these digital means, the issues of privacy and surveillance tend to arise. In the following excerpt from Advertising: What Everyone Needs to Know®, Mara Einstein helps us understand how marketers are tracking us, and how to potentially stop it.

How come ads seem to follow me around the Internet?

This is what is known as retargeting. In the sales funnel paradigm, marketers want to interact with you as far down the funnel as possible, the best place being the point of sale. Online, that means the shopping cart. If you put an item into the cart— say, a pair of jeans or the latest bestseller— and then decide you don’t have time to buy it right away, an ad for that product will begin to follow you around the Internet. And it will go from your computer to your cell phone to your iPad or other tablets. The same holds true if you are doing research for something to buy. You begin looking into vacations on Cape Cod or a bicycle trip to Ireland and you can be sure that competitive advertising will follow—even after you book your trip.

When I am being tracked, do marketers really know that it is me by name?

Marketers claim they do not know who is connected to an IP address, nor do they care—at least not beyond the behavior that occurs on the computer, particularly as it relates to prod­uct purchases.

While this rings true and, from my discussions with people in the industry, I think it is, this does not mean that the infor­mation connected to our computer is anonymous. A number of books, and certainly Edward Snowden, have proved this point.

Two New York Times reporters were able to identify a sixty-two-year-old Georgia woman using anonymous search data from AOL. University of Texas researchers have “de-anonymized” information from Netflix’s database, including information about political preferences. One particularly concerning fact from Julia Angwin’s book Dragnet Nation is that “75 percent of the top one thousand websites included code from social networks that could match people’s names with their Web-browsing habits.” What this means is that if you don’t sign out of Facebook, whenever you are on a site that has the “like” button, Facebook can track you to the site—even if you don’t click the button. This holds true for other social sites as well. Speaking of “likes,” researchers analyzed those seemingly innocuous “likes” of 58,466 Americans and were able to accu­rately “predict a range of highly sensitive personal attributes including: sexual orientation, ethnicity, religious and political views, personality traits, intelligence, happiness, use of addic­tive substances, parental separation, age, and gender.”

 This is not to scare you, but to make you aware. Every click is tracked. Every post is noted, even to the point of knowing when you have edited your ideas.  

Companies know what, where, and how we search. They know how long we spend on a page, a site, and where we move to when we’re done. In addi­tion to tracking our moves, companies experiment with what we do online. One example is the A/B testing of advertising. It can be more personal than this, however. In one example, online dating site OkCupid manipulated data to lead people to believe they were a good match when they weren’t. Given this wrong information, people “liked” the mismatches. This is a well-known type of experiment called priming. It is rarely used in this way to play with emotions. In a true research setting, an experiment like this wouldn’t be allowed. Online, though, we are fair game. As Christian Rudder, OkCupid’s founder, put it: “Guess what, everybody: if you use the Internet, you’re the subject of hundreds of experiments at any given time, on every site. That’s how websites work.” Truer words were never said.

Unfortunately, none of this is done for our benefit. The data and the research and the emotional manipulation are all in the name of selling more products—most of which we probably don’t even need.

Is there a way to stop marketers from tracking me?

On your computer, the best thing to do is to clear out your cookies every day. If you don’t, the information will stay attached to the cookies for three months. You can also stop using your phone for anything except phone calls (I realize that’s probably hard to imagine).

What are ad blockers?

Ad blockers can help you from being tracked both online and on your mobile device. Adblocker Plus is one of the most pop­ular products. However, an increasing number of sites will not allow you to view their content if you are using an ad blocking extension.

Whether you choose to use the technology to block ads or not, it is useful to see how and how many companies, like data brokers and ad exchanges, are attempting to gain access to your computer. Two that I find helpful are Ghostery and Disconnect. When you put these extensions on your browser, they will enable you to see how many organizations are access­ing your computer by listing them as the website populates. With that information, you can decide which sites you want to interact with. One site I visited listed more than 6,000 compa­nies trying to access my computer; I did not go back to that site again. As well as listing companies such as DoubleClick (an ad network owned by Google), big data firms like AddThis, and ad exchanges like BrightRoll, Disconnect gives you the option of presenting the data as an infographic. In the middle of the illustration is a circle representing the site you are on, and com­ing off that circle are spokes that have circles on the end that contain the name of the company tracking you. Seeing dozens of bubbles floating on the screen gives you a visceral sense of just have surveilled you are.

However, even ad blockers are turning out to be not all they were cracked up to be. In September 2016, AdBlocker Plus announced that it would begin selling “acceptable” ads.

Featured image credit: “Close up code computer” by Lorenzo Cafaro. CC0 Public Domain via Pexels.

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