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Is Targeted Advertising Turning Us into Addicts?

by Annie Kapur about a year ago in social media
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An Investigation

Is Targeted Advertising Turning Us into Addicts?
Photo by Rami Al-zayat on Unsplash

Social media has been on the rise in the last decade and with it has come some very unique changes to society. When I was a child, targetted advertising only existed on television. Depending on what time you watched and what channel you were watching, the companies would advertise appropriately in order to pick up the correct demographic. This was purely based on viewing statistics and nothing else. But with today's social media gathering data to the extreme, with websites knowing more about us than we do - has targeted advertising taken it too far? Is it now altering our conscious decisions on what we do day by day?

The Definition

What is targeted advertising on social media?

By Ylann Meyer on Unsplash

Targeted advertising on social media is based on your data. The more attention and data you give to social media, the more refined the advertisements will be. For example: if you go through Instagram and like a certain number of pictures based on a specific design aesthetic, you may get adverts with the same design aesthetic in order to catch your attention. The game of targeted advertising is how long they can hold you attention for. And they're winning.

Targeted advertising can also help us. Personally, I love to read (as you know already) so I get advertisements about where I can buy cheaper books from and that's amazing. I would not, however, want to get advertisements about motorcycle racing for example. It would be pointless and would lose my attention and possibly even get me to (god forbid) stop using the appplication.

Targeted advertising uses everything from your birthday to your favourite animal, from your political and philosophical beliefs all the way to what kind of hat you wear, from your mother's maiden name to your ethnicity all the way down to whether you have ever left the country. It does this in order to make the adverts you see grab your attention, making you want to click on them. Therefore, every single person's news feed, timeline etc. is completely different to everyone else's. No two people see the same adverts at the exact same time. Why? Well, because it also knows the times of day you're online and when you are most likely to make purchases.

Yes, it went that far.

The Sales

The question now is about how effective targeted advertising is and whether it is increasing any sales in particular markets.

By Isaac Smith on Unsplash

According to various studies and surveys in 2019, around 45-50% of users who saw advertisements on social media stated that they were more likely to buy something if it was advertised there as opposed to television, magazine or any other form of advert. If we take that number and apply it to the approximately 4 billion people who use social media then we have around 2 billion people who would, in theory, potentially buy something from an advert they see on that platform.

Many companies report up to 25% growth in profits because of advertisements on social media. It is not because there are more adverts on social media - it is because the demographic for said advert is far more fine-tuned than we could have ever imagined.

This is whole-heartedly positive for everyone: we are seeing advertisements for things we actually want and companies, big and small, are making a profit off an increase in sales.

But there's more.

The Dark Side

Targeted advertising can go sour though...

By Mathew MacQuarrie on Unsplash

I'm going to tell you a very important story of what happened to me in 2020 and something that I realised that was happening to me. I had to break away from these advertisements - it may have not been the main reason, but it was definitely the main factor.

During 2019, I liked to enjoy cocktails. I was very much into mixing really nice and beautiful drinks containing all different kinds of alcohol and juices etc. Of course, because I was buying alcohol with my card, my targeted advertising would include alcoholic drinks - especially pre-made cocktails.

I started buying the pre-made cocktails as I wanted to try them. They were brilliant. At the start of 2020, I was drinking almost weekly and enjoying learning about all these different drinks. I could make a Manhattan, a Daiquiri, a Mojito, Pina Colada and everything in between. I was using fresh fruit next within these cocktails and wanted to add a bit more alcohol to make them slightly stronger. So obviously, I had to buy more of it.

Targeted advertising knew this and therefore, began advertising me more. As time progressed, I bought more and more alcohol and was now drinking on a daily basis. But this time, I wasn't drinking cocktails. I was drinking straight from the bottle of vodka, whiskey or rum. It simply got worse and worse and very much a lot worse.

I realised my life was going downhill and went cold turkey. I had spiraled into random crying fits and I was not happy. I felt awful and always had a headache. I just went cold turkey and gave it up. But my problem was not the 'what' but the 'why' and the 'how'. I just kept thinking 'how did this manage to happen?' Why? I have been drinking for years and I have never in my life been addicted to alcohol before.

So I investigated.

The Investigation

By William Iven on Unsplash

I noticed that whilst I was going cold turkey, I was getting alcohol adverts at an alarming rate. I had never really put up anything about my alcohol intake on social media because it was never a big part of who I was. But it was like social media knew what was going on behind the scenes and how much alcohol I was buying and kept advertising me more. I noticed one key thing: every third or fourth advert on my feed was for some alcoholic beverage. It was for a cocktail, or a Jim Beam's, a new flavour of rum or even and I shit you not - shot glasses.

I did an experiment.

I bought three bottles of rum with my card and then returned them straight away, asking for cash in return. As soon as I went back on to social media, the second advertisement I got was for a cocktail from the very same company that I had bought the alcohol from (that I will not name). It was like the application (again, not named) were egging me on to drink when in fact, I was trying to come off it. I was shocked, but I cannot say I was surprised.

So, let's ask the important question:

Is targeted advertising turning us into addicts?

By Alexander Shatov on Unsplash

Whether you are addicted to alcohol or addicted to shopping for clothes, even buying memorabilia etc. targeted advertising is there to make you do more of that because that generates money. If the company is making money off you, they are more likely to buying advertising space and the buying of more advertising space means the application company makes more money. It is a way to spin the money back to themselves and they will do anything in order to do that and maintain it.

The important lesson here is to not get sucked in. We all know that targeted advertising impacts all our lives - even if you don't think it does. But the important thing is to know where to draw the line, recognise the patterns and try your best to keep yourself together because, in reality - these companies don't care about you. You are data to them. You are their product and their audience at the same time.

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About the author

Annie Kapur

Film and Writing (M.A)

150K+ Reads on Vocal

IG: @AnnieApproximately

Pronouns: (she/her/hers)

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