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Saturday, April 20, 2024

How I Use Targeted Ads as My Personal Shopping Assistant

I have a confession to make. I love targeted ads.

It’s so satisfying to see the exact skirt I searched for yesterday show up in my Instagram feed today, or to stumble upon a new gadget I didn’t know I needed while scrolling through Facebook. It feels good to be known, like getting the perfect birthday gift I hadn’t even thought to ask for, or getting a call from a friend right when I need them.

I know plenty of people feel differently about targeted advertising, including my own esteemed colleagues. Many security experts and regular web users regard targeted ads—which rely on tracking your web activity—as creepy and invasive. And I absolutely respect that. Targeted advertising, also called behavioral advertising, works best when companies collect and share personally identifiable information about you. Privacy advocates and concerned citizens do not want companies to harvest a user's data and sell it to advertisers, and some in the US have pushed the issue all the way to Congress—it has even found its way to the State of the Union address. Privacy is important to the health of the internet, and I understand why people don’t want to feel like they live in a panopticon.

But since targeted ads are, at least for now, inevitable, I’m going to take advantage of them.

Shopping overwhelms me. I’m talking frozen-in-the-alternative-milk-section-of-Whole-Foods-while-soccer-moms-shove-me-out-of-the-way kind of overwhelmed. This happens everywhere—grocery stores, Nordstrom, Goodwill, and even online. I walk in, see all the options, feel paralyzed by indecision, and walk out empty-handed. Or the opposite happens and I walk out with everything I’ve never needed. Or I order the wrong-sized dress online and forget to mail it back for a refund. Or I add shorts to my e-shopping cart, get distracted, and don’t go back until they’re sold out.

What does any of this have to do with targeted ads? Let’s say I see a sweater I really like in an Instagram ad, but before I check out I realize that this is a purchase for another paycheck. Others might leave the sweater in their cart and come back to it on payday. Still others may use a bookmarking service like Pinterest or Pinboard. Those solutions don’t always work for me. It’s very likely I won’t remember I wanted to buy the sweater, what brand it was, which website to go to, or that I even bookmarked it. (I have about 40 tabs open on my phone with things I wanted to remember and never did.)

Then I figured out that if I click on an ad for something I know I eventually want to buy, it will likely repopulate on my social media feeds through targeted advertising. Those ads will then start to serve as little reminders to myself. It’s an easy system. I simply click on an ad, and it pops back up in my feed over and over again until I have the means (or the time) to buy the thing. These targeted ads have become like my own personal secretary pool.

Ad-HD

I used to think this type of behavior was an inescapable personality trait, or another symptom of my generalized anxiety. Then my physician told me the symptoms I have likely point to attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, commonly known as ADHD. With this more recent self-discovery, I’m seeking an official diagnosis, working on a treatment plan, and constantly learning more about how these symptoms acutely impact my day-to-day life—from how I clean to how I work and shop.

Kenny Handelman, a psychiatrist and author of the book Attention Difference Disorder, said it’s no surprise shopping with ADHD is such a struggle1. He explained that there are three symptoms involved: lack of impulse control, executive dysfunction, and prospective memory issues.

A person who lacks impulse control might act quickly without considering the consequences. For somebody like me, that means purchases can sometimes pile up as I buy things without asking myself if I actually need them. Executive dysfunction is difficulty performing mundane tasks, such as mailing back that ill-fitting or unflattering pair of jeans you’ve been meaning to return. Prospective memory—or remembering to remember things—can manifest itself in either forgetting you wanted to buy something or forgetting you’d been meaning to save money for something else entirely. These symptoms can combine to add unnecessary financial stressors to your life and create an unenjoyable shopping experience.

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There are medications that treat my ADHD symptoms, but these aren’t magic pills that can make me remember everything I’ve ever wanted to, so I tend to look for ways to work with these symptoms instead of against them. That’s where my little advertising trick comes in. I see an advertisement for a sustainable clothing brand pop up in my feed, I click on it to visit the site to ensure my interest is logged in the great database in the sky, and I trust I’ll be reminded of that brand the next time I open Instagram.

What Goes Around Comes Around

Eric Seufert, a marketing analyst at Mobile Dev Memo, tells me the tactic I’m taking advantage of is called “retargeting,” meaning that the ads I interact with will end up back in my social feeds because the companies serving these ads see that I’m interested in them. This is great for me, but more privacy-minded folks fear it’s indicative of a more insidious pattern of Big Tech following your every move. Seufert explains that no singular data set—meaning your personal information in this instance—is typically useful on its own.

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By Caitlin Harrington

The data used to target specific audiences is often aggregated into groups of people who are collated together based on corresponding clicks, browsing history, and location. After that group analysis, ads are delivered specifically to the targeted audience. The data used to create these pockets of people is either rooted in behavioral patterns (like what you tend to click on) or personally identifiable information (like your address).

Seufert compared tracking behavioral patterns to getting a receipt at the grocery store—you own the receipt, but the store also uses a copy of it for subsequent business decisions, like when and how often to restock an item you bought. For me, this retargeting helps me sift through the distracting noise of what I don’t want, and more often than not leads to an informed, thoughtful purchase instead of a rash, useless one.

My love affair with targeted ads came to fruition while planning my wedding. In case you didn’t know, there are a LOT of things you have to buy when preparing for an in-person wedding with 100-plus guests, from outfits for your bachelorette party to your rehearsal dinner dress and accessories for every event in between. For months, I searched for shoes. Wedding shoes are almost universally heinously styled or heinously expensive. I wasn’t particularly interested in what I found through my initial web searches, so I kept clicking through interesting ads in hopes of finding the perfect pair. I fed the tracking tools a constant stream of data about who I was and what I needed. Eventually, my Instagram ads clearly knew I was getting married. They then turned into my own personal shopper, providing me with targeted ads for brands I could not have found myself.

Alexandre Birman’s mid-tier shoe company, Schutz, waltzed its way into my Instagram ad feed, and my perfect wedding shoe found its way onto my feet. The shoes weren’t elaborate, but they were just right—a pair of simple, strappy gold sandals to perfectly complement the off-white, beaded dress of my dreams. I clicked on the ad for those shoes religiously so they wouldn’t get lost in my laundry list of wedding to-dos. Finally, I made my way to the brick-and-mortar store, tried the shoes on, and ordered them in plenty of time for the big day.

Taking Note

I’m sure folks, especially those with ADHD or other neurodivergent tendencies, have more fool-proof, established reminder systems. Handelman uses the app Evernote to collect his thoughts, for example. My method isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, but it’s in line with the guidance Handelman typically offers. Handelman often advises his patients to leave visual notes for themselves, like placing medications out in the open as a reminder to take them. Since I’m on social media more than I’d like to admit, targeted ads serve a similar purpose for me.

It is important to note that data brokers (companies that track your internet usage and sell or lease that information) sometimes indiscriminately share collected data with anyone willing to pay for it. Your behavioral profile could end up in the hands of law enforcement or bad actors, like stalkers. Joe Root, a data privacy advocate and cofounder of the advertising company Permutive, says it’s dangerous for companies to track your every move on the internet because “the scale of this tracking becomes very invasive.”

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By studying your behavior online, ad-tech companies can then learn things like where you shop, which credit card you use, and who your closest personal contacts are. The degree of detail becomes evident when employers purchase this data to dox employees, as happened when a Catholic newsletter outed a priest for using Grindr after obtaining location data and correlating it with other data about the priest.

In the case of social media platforms like Facebook or Instagram, Root assuaged my fears by telling me that those companies don’t sell your data, but rather accrue their own groups based on traits and behaviors and then work with advertisers to target the groups more accurately. This is intended to create a fairly closed loop that keeps your information safe from data brokers while still allowing companies to serve more effective ads on Facebook’s platforms. However, as Motherboard recently reported, these systems may not be as insular as Facebook hoped. While this finding is inconclusive, clicking on ads inside Instagram is likely safer than clicking on ads on some random website or blog I've never visited before.

Chances are I’m making a deal with the corporate advertising devil, but I don’t think advertising companies and data brokers should be the only beneficiaries of this fraught system. The government has every opportunity to regulate online advertising to protect privacy and vulnerable populations, but it has yet to officially set firm rules. So, for now, I’ll keep clicking to circumnavigate my brain … until Instagram serves me another Saks ad for some item I’ll never be able to afford.

1Update, April 29, 5:15pm: This story was updated to correctly state Kenny Handelman's profession. He is a psychiatrist.


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