Feeling sad? Here’s an ad. Why we buy things we don't want

Targeted ads are probably better than non-targeted ads: if you are interrupted anyway, it'd better be something you are actually interested in. Ad targeting started rather simple — as placing whiskey ads in magazines for men and formula ads in magazines for women. But then the Internet came, and it escalated quickly.

Ruining families, electing presidents, and other superpowers data gives

Everyone knows that anecdotical case when a company deduced that a teenage girl was pregnant, sent her coupons for baby goods and had to explain it to her angry father why they thought he was to become a grandpa soon.

Pity that it was most probably made up (1, 2). But tellingly, people believe it at once. The marketing team at Target actually assigns a Guest ID to every credit card. Then they analyze purchases made with this card, combining this information with data bought from other sources, tells Forbes citing Target's statistician. There might actually be a model to calculate some kind of a "pregnancy score" that estimates the probability of a woman expecting. If a person aged 17-37 starts buying unscented lotion and soap, dietary supplements with zinc and calcium, such model may decide that she's most probably a mother-to-be. If she buys little blue blankets and diapers, she's most probably a baby boy's mother-to-be-soon. Not quite rocket science.

Everyone remembers that pregnant teen from 2012, but everyone seemingly already forgot the two words from 2018: Cambridge Analytica. The company mined tons of data about Facebook users who willingly gave it away in exchange for funny tests that they then willingly shared with friends. The company used the data for psychological profiling and behavioral manipulations around presidential elections. Facebook's capitalization lost $40 billion in a day. The company blamed Russian hackers for it but had to pay £500,000 as a fine in the UK anyway.

Facebook has learnt an important lesson from the CA case: "Respect your users, do not abuse and manipulate them, find other ways to earn the billions you need so much..." Nah, just kidding! "Data is priceless, we can make more money analyzing it than by giving away to third parties" — that was the real takeaway for them.

And what have we, users, learnt from the CA case? Our personal data is actually quite valuable: it can be used not only for selling you stuff, but literally for making someone a leader in charge of a huge country.

Emotional targeting: denied but evident

Actually, Facebook started to realize the high importance of personal data long before the scandal with third parties. Back in 2017, The Australian told the world about how Facebook pitches its vast targeting options to advertisers. Find teenagers with low self-esteem, who feel insecure, have no friends and are bullied at school, and sell them some trendy sneakers by convincing they'd become popular among peers. Sounds like a plan!

Facebook gave a presentation to one of Australia's top four banks in which they showed how advertisers could use the network's targeting tools to hone in on young people when they're feeling stressed or anxious, worthless or insecure, and thereby use their emotional state to boost response to their ad content.

By monitoring posts, pictures, interactions and internet activity in real-time, Facebook can work out when young people feel “stressed”, “defeated”, “overwhelmed”, “anxious”, “nervous”, “stupid”, “silly”, “useless”, and a “failure”, the document states.

Facebook made an official statement saying that it was just a research about how people behave in social networks, and the data used was anonymized. Big relief. Why do they always appeal to anonymization? If your digital doppelganger is used to get under your skin and into your wallet, what does it change if it's not signed with your name?

Facebook said that it did not "offer tools to target people based on their emotional state". But any owner of a business account sees the basic targeting options inside: Facebook offers them people who are "away from family", "got married three months ago", "returned from a trip two weeks ago". What else is that if not emotional targeting? At Facebook they call it "psychometric" targeting, so it must be an absolutely different thing.

Of course advertisers are no angels too. They snatch an opportunity when they see it. Just look how they advise each other to exploit FOMO created in people by social networks to sell some more stuff and to write headlines that make people angry and anxious.

Anything you post may be used against you

The bells had rung before The Australian came across the 23-page presentation about targeting troubled teenagers. Several months earlier Facebook published a research about the marketing opportunities regarding people who'd recently broken up. We wonder why this report is not available at the direct link anymore…

We wanted to know more about what it means for people to end a relationship in the digital age. As part of our Moments That Matter series, Facebook IQ explored how the break-up moment influenced the online behaviors of people across France, the Netherlands, Poland, the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom who indicated on Facebook that they recently went through a break up.

While we did find some broken hearts, we mostly discovered that people use this moment to lean on friends and family and, perhaps most importantly, reconnect with what matters to them

Finally (for all we know, at least), in April 2021 Reset Australia, a global initiative working to counter digital threats to democracy, discovered that Facebook allows advertisers to target teenagers aged 13-17 that are "interested in alcohol, smoking and vaping, gambling, extreme weight loss, fast foods and online dating services".

Looks like folks just hate Facebook there in Australia! There's certainly a history behind the beef between Facebook and Australia, but for other reasons.

How we can help

Nevertheless, Facebook remains Facebook. You shut a door for them, they come through windows. It's almost intriguing to imagine what they will think of next, what data they'll harvest and use. Keystroke pattern analysis to know when you are drunk or sleepy? Why not? TikTok already does it by the way. We dare to predict that they'll serve it as a security measure: if the pattern changes noticeably, it could mean that the account is stolen and must be suspended until the owner regains control.

By the way, you probably witnessed or participated in a discussion about Facebook and Instagram overhearing your offline conversations to serve you ads based on the brands and goods you've mentioned. We've even cited a research that kinda proved it. But now we are inclined to believe Facebook's explanations that they do not overhear anything: they just do not need to. Why waste all the resources it would require when they have enough data that you give them "willingly" while using the social networks. Same goes about "reading" WhatsApp chats.

Researchers keep discovering that people start to value their personal data. But Facebook had to offend children to raise serious concerns about ad targeting and data mining. They actually needed to offend children twice. Eventually, the company had to make some changes. In August 2021 Facebook announced that advertisers will no longer be able to target teens based on their interests or activities on other websites and in other apps. They will still be able to target people under 18, but only by age, location, and gender.

So, while children are a little better protected, we can take this time to think about us adults. How can we not let Zuckerberg crawl into our souls and invite advertisers along?

One of the main principles — talk to people rather than to robots. Why tell your friends about your engagement by clicking a button under the "Life event" feature if you can write a post about it? Why use the "Feeling/Activity" button instead of posting a text or a photo about your trip to New York? Besides it's not always safe to shout on Facebook that you will not show up at home for several weeks, but's a different topic altogether.

We at AdGuard know only too well that advertising is not just a source of information noise and distraction. It's a constantly growing arsenal of psychological warfare used by people who care about your money and not your well-being. They had long ago discovered the access to the data on your actions, thoughts, plans, and wishes, and they have recently discovered access to the data on your emotions, worries, hopes, and doubts.

This might be the threshold of transformation of quantity into quality regarding marketing manipulations. Emotions drive impulse purchases even when we are not provoked by professionals, and here comes Facebook and puts it into a system that can exploit both happiness and sadness, joy and depression, midlife crisis and teenage angst.

So there is one more reason to keep your data to yourself, on top of the previous several hundreds of reasons. Use ad blockers, cut out ad trackers, avoid digital fingerprinting. Use privacy tools while searching for sensitive topics like mental health, family issues, vulnerable conditions and so on. We won't guarantee that you'll be able to completely outplay Facebook and other data-grabbing baddies, but at least make them work for it HARD.

Ludmila Kudryavtseva on The More You Know Industry News
13. september 2021
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