You’re Not Paranoid, Advertisers Really Are Watching You

Thanks to the internet, the never-ending quest to pinpoint advertising to a viewer’s demographic has gone into territory unthinkable by the Madison Ave of yore. Back in the day, even up until the explosion of the internet, advertising decision-making and placement of ads were fairly simple: develop your messaging, ad concept, and make it as targeted as possible with the data that you had  – from something as simple to a Yellow Pages ad for the local plumber to more targeted like a billboard on the highway for tires, or a print ad for cosmetics in a women’s magazine.  Sure, you could pull from demographic information, but it was nowhere near the level of data-gathering techniques available online today. Advertisers now have access to a startling array of  information about peoples’ internet surfing habits, lifestyle preferences and other personal data to create advertising “just for you”.

In theory, micro-targeted advertising does have a mutual payoff both to the advertiser and the recipient:  the marketer doesn’t waste dollars on non-starter prospects and the viewer only sees products and services that are of interest — seems like a perfect match. But in order to achieve this potential win-win proposition, we must give, willingly, or ignorant of its implications, a lot of personal information to these folks. And let’s not kid ourselves, few of us lovingly embrace advertising, but know it’s part of the trade-off of a “free” internet (OK I love it but I’m in the business). Web sites where we shop, compare, network, read articles, and everything else turns a jumble of data about our grooming habits, drinking preferences, marital status, film choices, political leanings, and churns out a target profile.

From this technology boom comes a bonanza for advertisers, including some of the fastest growing advertising trends that marketers are capitalizing on and privacy advocates are watching closely.

Real-Time/Instant Bid Ads 

Online ads historically have been on the perimeter of web pages and many of us may not even pay attention. But if we look closer, we’ll see they have a strong correlation to what we are looking at on the screen, since advertisers can pull from general demographics and location. When I look up biking routes in the San Francisco bay area, there will likely be ads for local bicycle shops, bicycle trips coming up in California and maybe even an ad for the latest Lance Armstrong book. Now, though, advertisers can make split-second decisions by “following” viewers around on the web. For example, if I purchase a vacation package on eBay (who has actually been testing a system for a year), that data can be captured and eBay can dynamically change ads for other parts of my trip, like travel, or beach wear, or other vacation-oriented ads – instantly. 

Self-Service “Smart Technology” Advertising

Another trend ala Facebook is self-service advertising, which allows companies to cherry pick from Facebook’s 400 million subscribers for both demographic and psychographic slicing and dicing. For instance, an advertiser can pull data for all 30-35 year olds, single and married, in New York City who are Facebook fans of Top Chef and listed fine dining as a key word on their profile to see an ad of a new, trendy restaurant opening in Soho. Sometimes these ads can be a great match with the person, but other times are an awkward, intrusive advertising on our Facebook pages that will get noticed for the wrong reasons. Facebook does have sales consultants to help create a successful ad, but the point is, anybody can pull an inordinate amount of  data and create an ad for hundreds of thousands of people.

Geolocation Applications

Mobile marketing has been around for a while in the form of texting and other basic methods, but with the advent of mobile GPS, Geolocation applications, which reveal both your location on a map and real-world location (i.e. restaurant, store, etc)  it has become one of the hottest applications around and marketers cashing in on its potential. This has also spurned a whole new market referred to as Location-Based Advertising (LBA). Now when you are walking down the street on your way to dinner and pass the movie theater, a coupon may pop up on your phone for 2 for 1 tickets. It is important to note that LBA is an opt-in service so you will not receive coupons, discounts and incentives unless you subscribe to the company’s service. You can retrieve LBA two ways: where the location drives the discount from the company or when you are at a location and initiate contact with the company for instant discounts. 

Similarly, though still in its infancy, location-based social media games like Foursquare and Gowilla that notify friends of your location at any given moment, has marketing savvy written all over it too. Restaurant, shops and other businesses reward those who frequent their venues regularly with points, badges and other incentives (yes, you can be a mayor of a bar). These social media games only will get more popular as advertisers figure out how to capitalize on data collected about places where people are frequenting and with whom.

Smart Signs

Now let’s step offline to another area into an area where you are an unwilling participant but the target nonetheless of shrewd marketers. Say you’re a 35-year-old woman walking down the street and a digital sign advertises 25% off a womens’ clothing store right next door. Five minutes later, a teenage boy is walking by and the newest Wii game is advertised for the electronics store down the street. Technology has now evolved to recognize facial and other body features to create an instant demographic and in turn, rotate advertising messages in airports, malls, and other public places.  One wonders rather sadly if this trend will lead to embarrassing scenes like a large person seeing an ad for Weight Watchers while walking through an airport.  Advertisers are hesitant to talk about who is using this technology, claiming it would give their competition “inside information” about their marketing strategy but somehow I think they are more embarrassed.  

The most important thing for consumers know is that an innocent click at a web site, or even walking down the street, we are willing participants in turning over personal information to advertisers. So don’t be impressed when you see an ad that seems perfect for you, just turn to the mirror and congratulate yourself for a job well done. 

Photo credit: Boston Police Department

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One thought on “You’re Not Paranoid, Advertisers Really Are Watching You

  1. Janice,

    I did not know about most of the ways that advertisers collect info from my choices of things to buy and what I do online. Actually, what you wrote annoyed me about these advertisers and invading my privacy–who wants tailored ads for me. I certainly don’t. What are the privacy issues that need to be raised with advertisers? Larry Cuban

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