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Behavioural Ad Targeting Has Customers Subconsciously Redefining Themselves

A lot has been written about the ethics of data collection and advertisement targeting. We’ve seen a lot of interesting things happen in the industry this year. Everything from ad tech companies using consumer data to profile voters to major tech companies partnering up with law enforcement to track domestic terror threats. Most of the news and discussion has been based on overt situations that are happening in plain sight. A recent (back in April) study on advertising has moved past these cases and instead focused directly on the impact behavioral ad targeting is having on our psyches and the power it has to encourage viewers to not only align themselves with brands but also redefine the way they view themselves as people. Behavioral ad retargeting advertisements may be playing a role in influencing the way we think about ourselves and our favorite extracurricular pursuits.

Here’s a couple quotes from The Harvard Business Review, which has written a TL;DR article that explains what the academic research found.


“behaviorally targeted ads have unique psychological consequences that help make them more effective than ads that rely on traditional demographic or psychographic targeting”


“After receiving a behaviorally targeted ad for an environmentally friendly product, undergraduate study participants rated themselves as more “green” and were (at least in the short-term) subsequently more willing to buy the advertised product and to donate to a pro-environmental charity”


”This targeting may change how consumers see themselves and make them feel like they already have traits implied by the ads”

We often get asked how we reconcile being an ad technology company with being anti-ad targeting or how the industry can move beyond its insatiable appetite for private user data. The information in this study tells most of the story for us. There’s so much we don’t know about its impact, and there’s so much potential for abuse that the dangers far outweigh the benefits from our perspective. User data and the private information gleaned from these modern data collection technologies can obviously be used to sell more products (who wouldn’t want that), but the data can also be used to manipulate people or change them in unethical ways. People are starting to wake up to the fact that the technology can rewire our brains on psychological levels, and then subconsciously re-align our interests to match up with the marketing goals of brands using these techniques.

If that’s not creepy on an Orwellian level, I’m not sure what is any more.

Todd Garland, CEO, and Founder at BuySellAds

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