Do we control our ads, or do our ads control us?

Behavioural targeting in ads is no secret. We’re all becoming aware of seeing ads that reflect our previous searches. Searching for eco-friendly face clothes? Up pops the ad for the jumper made out of recycled bottles. Looking for a new diet plan to follow? One single search and you’ll be haunted by weight-loss shakes, smoothies and bars for eternity.

Behavioural targeting is a fairly new concept, coined in 1999 by DoubleClick and Engage when they realised that personal identifiable information collected across a network of websites could be used to direct ads to specific audiences for it to be more effective.

In 2012, behaviour tracking went mainstream when American retailer, Target, managed to predict a woman was pregnant before she even told her family, all based on her searches of baby related products.

4 minute read

18th January 2024

Are you being behaviourally targeted?

Put simply, the fact that you are reading this means probably yes. Unless you’ve super-engaged your privacy settings or share computers, the chances are you’ll have an abundance of data collected on your searching habits that advertisers use to get you exactly where they want you.

A simple way to tell if the ads you see are behaviourally targeted? There’ll be an AdChoice icon (cheeky blue triangle) in the top right corner of the ad.

Can these ads control us?

I’m not suggesting that these ads have the power to brainwash you. But, they may shift the view you have of yourself. Let me explain…

Labelling theory suggests that giving people a specific label has the power to change their behaviour. A study compared two groups of people who donated money. Group one were called ‘charitable’ after donating, and Group two had no comment. Afterwards, Group 1 were more likely to make a generous second donation as they believed themselves to be charitable, showing that our actions reflect who we believe we are, and labels from others can shape our identity.

For example, when I was younger, my mum told me that I was amazing at peeling carrots, and I self-identified as a fantastic carrot peeler. As a result of this, I ended up offering to peel the carrots regularly to show off my skills (smooth trick, mum, real smooth). Would I have offered to peel them if I didn’t think I was fantastic? Probably not.

Transfer this pattern to an ad you might see. Based on previous search histories of adventurous holidays (think hiking, biking and kayaking), you may now get ads for climbing lessons, centres where you can kayak near you, and activity tours around the world. Knowing that these ads are directed for you, you may then think “I am a dangerous daredevil adventurer” and conform to that identity ie. book a trip that involves hiking up a mountain where you may not have done otherwise (see my earlier blog for proof).

But accuracy matters

Let’s be honest. This only works under certain circumstances. If you regularly carry out food related searches, and get ads for ‘luxury fine dining restaurants’ when you actually searched ‘local takeaways near you’ and ‘how long do I cook a pizza for’, chances are, the ads won’t suddenly influence your gastronomic preferences.

Key takeaways

Although the AdChoice icon is there to comfort us that the specific ad is based on our digital profile, it really has the power to do so much more.

If you are concerned about behavioural targeting, it’s easy to opt out entirely. But maybe these ads have the power to help us live up to our true identities? Better start deleting your internet history…