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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

In Support of Untargeted Ads?



A Provocation

Irina Raicu

Irina Raicu is the director of the Internet Ethics program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.  Views are her own.

As we become increasingly aware of the vast amount of personal information collected about us by various entities online, and of the relationship between that information-harvesting and the drive toward ever-more-precisely targeted messaging directed at us, we hear one argument consistently made in support of the contention that such personalization is good for us: “But think of the targeted ads!” The assumption, almost always received with nods of agreement, is that “relevant” ads are a benefit to the person seeing those ads. To be even clearer, those who make that argument sometimes offer specifics: “If you’re a woman, you will never have to see ads for beard trimmers.” “If you’re a man, you will never have to see ads for tampons…”

Of course, ads are not primarily designed to inform us about things we’re already interested in buying.  Their purpose is to make us buy things from a particular source. Whether targeted or not, ads are not Consumer Reports entries about a product: they are offers to sell, placed in front of us (the potential buyers) by potential sellers who paid to have their particular offers presented to our eyeballs. There might be other offers out there that might be better for us as buyers. Most ads don’t pretend to do our research for us—they just try to convince us to take a particular deal.

Set that aside for a minute, though, to focus on the fact that targeted ads are at least offers about things we might actually be interested in buying (and that the better the targeting, the higher the likelihood of our interest). That, the argument goes, is one key benefit of all this collection and selling of personal information about us.

Are there counterpart harms, though, arising from this targeting? Commentators have pointed out that the imbalance of information—when the consumer is the intimately known entity who knows much less about the seller—does not bode well for the consumer. And experts have debated the benefits and harms of price discrimination online, which is fueled by that imbalance. To those concerns, I want to add another question.

Do we lose something if we stop seeing misdirected ads that aren’t really relevant to our shopping needs?

Far be it from me to sing the praises of advertising (or clamor for more). Still, in this context, I keep thinking of a particular kind of interaction. When I was a teenager, for example, I would watch TV with my dad, and I remember the awkwardness that would descend on us when an ad for tampons would suddenly appear on the screen. “This is the day you’ve been waiting for!” a cheerful female voice would announce, as a young woman dressed in something pale and gauzy would sway away on a swing or run through a meadow. And I would think to myself that I was pretty sure it was not the day (or the product innovation) that my dad had been waiting for. But now, in the context of targeted advertising, I find myself reconsidering that experience. Maybe my dad, and other men, were reminded (gauziness and other stereotypical imagery notwithstanding) about the reality of lives and needs different from their own. Is that so bad?

Do un-personalized ads unintentionally teach us something?  If social media platforms are replacing the public square, is highly targeted advertising in a sense replacing the public markets in which we might still bump (on the internet) into our fellow citizens?

In this age of worries about personalized news and filter bubbles and coastal elites (or other homogenous communities) and political polarization, do we give up something else, besides privacy (and the autonomy and security and creativity and intellectual freedom that depend on privacy), when we get rid of “irrelevant” ads? Should we add the issue of targeted ads to the discussion about the internet’s role in the loss of serendipity, which has been described as “vital to the production of knowledge”?

The notion of irrelevant advertising as a kind of public service might be a hard sell. And I do realize that the role or goal of advertising is not to serve the common good. But if, in a way, the old kind of advertising accidentally did that, it’s still something to consider as we try to weigh the benefits and harms of the massive data collection that accompanies the current digital economy and increasingly shapes our reality.

Photo by lorna, used without modification under a Creative Commons license.

Mar 23, 2017

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