Big Ads Are Watching You

People spend more time than ever on the Internet. Therefore, advertisements must also be more present than ever on the Internet. They must follow where the audiences go. More specifically, in the name of efficiency, ads should be targeted towards specific audiences.

For the most part, it works. It doesn’t make much sense to put an ad for Viagra on the Disney Channel, or on he flip side, an ad for a Barbie on ESPN. Advertisers have been doing this type of targeting for ages, and generally both the advertisers and the audiences have benefited: the companies are more likely to sell their product to an interested audience, and the audience can hear about products and services that they actually care about.

Now, however, as more and more of us cultivate very real, very active online identities, we release more and more information about ourselves and our preferences into the network. And increasingly, we find that companies like Google and Facebook are using that information to further target an ad to each of us individually. This is a whole different ballgame from a Barbie ad on the Disney Channel. That is marketing to a broad demographic. This is using your personal information to create ads for you that are scarily specific and tailored to the picture of you that these Internet giants have pieced together from your activities online.

How far is too far? Personally, I think that we’ve already reached that point. Usually this information is implicitly rather than explicitly given: rather than Google knowing that you like baseball because you wrote it in a comment on a blog for example–that is, you knowingly released that information to the public–they know because you search for it often in their search engine. Google’s databases must hold millions of secrets and bits of private information unwittingly given and surreptitiously collected. Facebook’s information page for advertisers boasts that they can “choose your audiences by location, age, and interests,” among other details that you meant to share with your friends, not corporations.

Progress seems to necessitate an ever increasingly open digital world, but how much of our privacy should we be willing to give up?

What do you think?

[For a very interesting recent article about racial profiling in Google ads, read this piece by Nathan Newman in The Huffington Post]

–Michelle Chan