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Targeted Advertising Considered Harmful (zgp.org)
43 points by ingve 780 days ago | hide | past | web | 56 comments | favorite



> Why aren’t users saying, "There’s a magic machine in a data center that will only show me ads for stuff I really want to buy? Better turn off the ad blocker!"

Regardless of the technical and privacy reasons for blocking, I just don't want to buy anything. I had no thought of a particular product before seeing the ad, and no thought afterword of buying it, despite its being just right for me.

I just don't want anything, other than food, clothes when mine wear out, and occasional specific purchases like a car or a book (that I knew I wanted on my own).

I think a big part of not wanting anything is that I don't watch cable or broadcast TV, just movies on Netflix or Vudu. I've inadvertently unconditioned myself from the purchase response. I'm almost sickened on the rare occasions when I see broadcast TV. "Really? I used to watch this constant, animated catalog of product? Bleah!"


Personally I am in the same group as you: all ads are irrelevant and when I want something I go looking. I wonder if something like this could work to achieve a power balance: One or more of the ad blockers adds a service for ad tracking so I can see what vendors use what tactics. Non-advertisers could choose to register as such. Then the public can reward vendors based on their tactics.


> I just don't want to buy anything.

But you still do. And you are susceptible to advertising signaling.

You buy toilet paper, shampoo and soap (I hope), laundry detergent, gas, coffee (presumably), personal ailment products and so forth. There is no way anyone could possibly research every category products they buy. So you will use what information you have available to you...and that is probably the memory of certain brands spending a dump truck's worth of money on advertising.


> But you still do. And you are susceptible to advertising signaling.

I honestly don't understand the confidence with which people claim this is universally true for absolutely everyone. I have no doubt that many or most people fall back on brand recognition, but it's really not that hard to avoid. To be clear, I don't doubt that brand awareness is driven largely by advertising, but no one has ever made a good case to me for why that necessarily affects purchase.

When I buy a commodity item (soap, tp. etc), I usually buy the cheapest one that I haven't already found to be lacking (or if I hit upon a particular product that I found works well for me, I continue buying that). When I buy a big ticket item, it's almost by definition worth spending an hour doing research on, and for expensive items there are almost always ample reviews and articles representing both sides[1].

[1] I'm aware that ethics breaches like undisclosed payola have the ability to corrupt this line of investigation but it doesn't have to do with susceptibility to advertising signaling.


Because your brain's a sponge, and all that stuff gets into your subconscious and affects your decision-making. In your examples given, it colors your perception of which products 'work well for you' and it biases that research you do for big-ticket purchases.

Studies have demonstrated it time and time again -- if you think you're unaffected, well, maybe you're less affected by most, or maybe you're engaging in wishful thinking.


Sure, the brain is a sponge and remembers many things which you're not consciously aware of. Those memories can affect your decisions. So far, so good. But... and there is a big 'but' here...

Advertising does not always have the desired effect. I generally avoid commercial content - whether it be printed advertisements, sponsored content or otherwise - but it is nearly impossible to avoid being exposed to some commercial content, whether I like it or not. Those advertisers which, through sheer tenaciousness or downright trickery manage to make their way into my consciousness might not like what their presence there does: it actively lowers my perception of their products as viable choices. To me, advertising is like mould on a piece of bread, like slimy threads in a bottle of beer, like a wriggling meal worm in a bag of flour. It does many things, but it does not make me want to buy the related product. I probably conditioned myself to behave like this due to my dislike of the dishonesty in advertising, but this is less relevant. I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one out there who reacts like this. Mentally connecting a brand or product to a piece of advertising just makes me think it is of low(er) quality, over-priced, designed to fail or otherwise deficient as the manufacturer needed to whittle down on production costs to pay for said advertising. It might not be true, but to me it feels like it is.


Most of the items you mention, I buy the store brand. I'm already aware of the need for toilet paper and shampoo. There are some name brands where I've found the store brand won't do. And yes, there probably is some brand awareness from ads.

I'm not saying I'm not affected by ads. I'm saying there's no motivation for me to turn off ad blockers; I'm doing fine.


The problem I have with targeted advertising isn't so much that it's advertising, but that when I look up information about plumbing on the internet and then visit a news website I get ads about toilets. That's really creepy to know that I'm being followed that closely.


(author of the original article)

That creeped out feeling is your brain letting you know about an information asymmetry -- someone knows more about you than you know about them. When you feel creeped out in a market setting, it's a warning that you're likely to get a bad deal.

Response to some earlier comments on the article:

http://zgp.org/~dmarti/business/arguments-for-targeted-adver...


I turn to Amazon Reviews rather than Ads.


Me too. Whenever I want to avoid large ships, or replace my worn out three wolves moon tshirt, Amazon is my go to source.


I'm in a similar boat re: broadcast TV. Whenever I'm in a place where I can't escape it (doctors' waiting rooms are the worst, as is the house of a certain family member who is a total TV junkie) I'm absolutely overwhelmed by the sudden increase in cognitive load I experience just by being in that environment. It really feels very invasive.

I recently started using an adblocker. (I hate to do that to content providers who are dependent on advertising for revenue, but I don't wish to consent to being tracked by advertisers, and in light of that I've been left with little other recourse.) Since then, I've developed a similar sensation when I experience the unblocked Web. The sudden jump in noise levels is jarring, and almost feels like a form of assault.

By contrast, I really don't mind subway ads. They're pervasive but easy to tune out, and I have absolutely responded to them. The most recent instance of me checking out a company I learned about from an ad on the train was a few hours ago, and I'm seriously considering purchasing their product.

The article suggests a way to explain this contrast that's very plausible. It had never really occurred to me that perhaps I view advertising as this interesting sort of Veblen good. So perhaps that leads me to think of some kinds of advertising as pure noise not just because of the high noise but also because of the low signal.


I think that's a great attitude. I recently found myself unsubscribing from various blogs that purported to highlight shopping deals, because I realized that such sites found their success in creating the suggestion that something was needed in the first place, and that I should get it because "it's on sale!" If I need something, I can probably find a deal, and if it's not an emergency I can put it on a list to check every so often. I think this saves me more money by avoiding unneeded purchases than getting minor sales on more stuff.


I don't think I've actually bought a novel product because of an ad (but perhaps brand awareness has worked to remind me to consume things one time or another) -- but I still find it a lack of imagination to think there's absolutely nothing you could discover. Never had your friends show you an interesting product, tool, website? It could be an automated ad network showing it instead.

Moreover, our individual experiences do not generalize well to the rest of the population if we're particularly frugal.


> but I still find it a lack of imagination to think there's absolutely nothing you could discover.

Perhaps. But the world is huge, and I still haven't worked my way through everything that I'm aware of on my own.

> Never had your friends show you an interesting product, tool, website?

Yes, all those things have happened. Even from ads.

> our individual experiences do not generalize well to the rest of the population if we're particularly frugal.

Absolutely. I'm an anecdote of one, just expressing my thoughts. The thing is, though, I'm not frugal for frugal's sake. I'm not frugal on purpose. It's just that in a universe of interesting things, there's enough interesting things outside the store doors that I personally don't need to go in to be interested. But that's me.


If the product is good enough for my friends to tell me about it by word-of-mouth, it's probably worth buying. People rarely give praise of things they buy unless it's a good thing.

If the company trying to profit from selling the product is advertising the product - why should I trust them?

Ads catered to me are surprisingly garbage. They assume because I like X, Y, and Z that I'll like a similar X, Y, or Z product.

It's hilarious that, after buying a can opener, Amazon thinks I want to purchase more can openers. Or I bought a nice jacket so it suggests me more jackets. If I play one life-consuming MMO, Google suggests me more MMOs that I don't have time to play. If these services could make more intelligent assumptions, it might be worth disabling my ad block from time to time.

But if you go browsing for a new car - you're going to get car ads. Even after you've purchased your new car. For weeks. (You need another car, right?)


> It's hilarious that, after buying a can opener, Amazon thinks I want to purchase more can openers. Or I bought a nice jacket so it suggests me more jackets. If I play one life-consuming MMO, Google suggests me more MMOs that I don't have time to play. If these services could make more intelligent assumptions, it might be worth disabling my ad block from time to time.

Interesting observation. It reminds of the story that pops up here occasionally of how analysts in WWII figured out that the best place to add armour to returning/surviving bomber planes was not where the survivors had damage, but where the survivors had no damage. http://www.johndcook.com/blog/2008/01/21/selection-bias-and-...

So if I bought a jacket, maybe specifically I shouldn't see jacket ads for a year; that would be innovative targeted advertising. Maybe instead I should see random things like can openers that I haven't bought or expressed an interest in. Or complementary things. Jacket? Sunglasses. Hats.


This strategy (showing more of what was searched) is certainly not optimal; but it's quite simple, and I'd say it's almost certainly better than showing random products. Ideally the ad provider should collect enough data to infer the most likely buy given the view history -- but this requires a vast dataset to provide a robust estimate, s.t. a decent approximation may be this strategy of just showing more of the same.

It's an interesting design point for me what the ad providers actually want to maximize. On one hand, they want to maximize the number of 'clicks', which is usually the direct revenue criterion -- but if those clicks don't generate sales their long term value is lost. But they also might not want to maximize sales exclusively: after all, they have multiple customers, and if they provide a large increase in sales for just a few of them, their overall service might see less demand on the long run. And finally, there are the consumers for which they also might want to maximize value -- otherwise they will be alienated on the long term (i.e. even the most naive user wont fall for one weird trick ads more than once). This should all come into play in the design of good ad decision system.

I believe all successful ad providers in the long run will have to give an overwhelming priority to customer value.


"Frequently purchased together" is a metric Amazon already uses. I also find it bad, a majority of the time. Often because I already have the other item and am buying the complementary item.

For example - I already had some weights and was looking for an Olympic bar. When I purchased weights it suggested buying an Olympic bar with them.

The largest issue is that I make offline purchases and purchases on other platforms. So Amazon had no idea of knowing that I already had an Olympic bar.

This is, of course, ignoring any privacy concerns. [0]

[0] http://www.forbes.com/sites/kashmirhill/2012/02/16/how-targe...


I liked the site "cool tools". http://kk.org/cooltools/

I submitted "MicroMuff" (a small windmuff for DSLR cameras) and they now list it. http://micromuff.com/

(Micromuff was created by a friend of mine).


cooltools, cool site.

Glancing over the front page, I saw this infinitely adjustable belt: http://kk.org/cooltools/archives/24536

I actually made something similar a few years ago. I went to a surplus store and bought a length of backpack strap with a friction lock on the end, cut to a reasonable length. I use it as a belt almost every day.

The one on cool tools looks kind of nice. I might ... ahem ... buy it.


Yes!

When I want to buy something, I rely on reviews. And I look at enough reviews to identify the biased ones, which are often based on the same press releases.


I'm in the same boat as you.

I see lots of ads online for men's clothing, recipe and food websites, and the occasional car ad.

Overall I'm rather happy with targeted ads. I see ads that are relevant to me, for sites and products I am actually interested in.


I see ads that are somewhat relevant to me, for sites and products that I already knew about.

I also get ads that are mistargeted but understandably so. Sure, you've got a great enterprise security management system. I do a lot of tech googling, but I'm not an enterprise, but it's close enough that I'll give them credit.


> just movies on Netflix or Vudu

So you do want something.

Edit: sorry if this come off as a little snarky.

I think it's relevant because Netflix and its ilk are actually some of the best cases for advertising: they have a high customer LTV and were once not well-known at all. They spend hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising every year.

Just because most advertising is irrelevant to a3n doesn't mean advertising is irrelevant. I likewise buy very few consumer goods, but I do appreciate advertising both as a consumer and an entrepreneur.


Yep, you caught me. :)


Ugh.

It's comments like this that make reading comments so much suck.

You took one tiny misworded part of his entire post and highlighted it to make an issue out of it. When you knew dang well what his overall argument was and what he really meant with that tiny badly worded part.

Stop adding to comment suck.


Sorry, but I do think it's relevent to the overall argument.

Netflix and its ilk are actually some of the best cases for advertising: they have a high customer LTV and were once not well-known at all. They spend hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising every year.

I feel like that undermines the entire argument. Just because most advertising is irrelevant to a3n doesn't mean advertising is irrelevant.

I likewise buy very few consumer goods, but I do appreciate advertising both as a consumer and an entrepreneur.


My point was that he wasn't actually saying he doesn't want for anything. Of course he does, and yes for him that includes Netflix.

My point was that his argument was that he generally knows what he wants and doesn't want to be incessantly marketed to -- yet, because of bad wording, you made it sound like he was erroneously claiming he wants nothing.

Almost by definition, we all want something. But that does not require constant marketing.


I am visibly frustrated with this article. It attempts to paint a proliferation of ad blocking as a measure by users to take back their privacy.

But it totally ignores the proliferation of defensive software to protect users from malicious ads that attempt to trick or confuse the user, many of which are funded or provided by the very agencies interviewed. The web without an adblocker can be a very dangerous place and users are becoming educated on this.

Ignored also is any not that the signal is confounded further by people seeking to avoid *-roll ads on video media, a market with amazing growth but positively miserable tools for unobtrusive advertising largely chained to the expectations of legacy media. YouTube is 10x better with adblock letting you bypass the same 15s shotgun preroll ad 16 times a day.

It also heavily biases the reasoning towards older people with a heavy stake in expensive and smaller log advertising. And all due respect to Doc Searles (SBLUG for lyfe!) and other sources, they're not 19yr old with what amounts to a substantial shift in privacy values and expectations informing their decisions.

Most toxic of all, this article implies that advertising overspend is the important part. While banks and other vendors have recognized this effect, its in no one's long term best interests to continue to feed that trend. It is tool that large institutions use to lock out small business by implying cash flow = confidence. We really don't want to encourage a world where you have to behave like Samsung to succeed even at a small scale.

I've resisted restarting my blog but ugh... I'm tempted to pull together some opposing data just to sock this pro-old-media anti-technology screed in the chin. It's just such an obviously disingenuous take on the situation.


I adblock so that pages take 1/10th the time to load as they would otherwise, don't block me from seeing content, and don't irritate me by playing sound or animations.

The other factor I see is that most ads are terrible. Most YouTube ads seem to think that they have 30 seconds to tell a story, and try to do so. No, you have 5 seconds to hook my attention. Some ads actually succeed at this and I watch the whole thing just to see what they're saying. Most start out with a slow pan across a horizon or some kids running around a house making noise, and I click Next before I have any idea what the ad is even remotely about.


It's true what it says about the purpose of advertising, and how it needs to be expensive to work; and the cost of advertising online keeps getting lower and lower. However I'm not sure stopping targeted ads will magically solve everything and make online ads as profitable as traditional ads; I'm sure most people block ads because they don't want to see them, not because they are targeted. Maybe online ads should be like traditional ones: ads being more expensive the more traffic the website gets; so having a banner in a very popular website should be the equivalent of having a billboard in an important avenue. So cost should be per view, and not per click. After all most of the most expensive ads in traditional media are there to establish a brand, not for you to buy something right now.


Inb4: “Considered Harmful” Essays Considered Harmful - http://meyerweb.com/eric/comment/chech.html


Nerd clickbait!


The spam analogy for targeted ads is a really bad one, I think. Spam became popular for senders because it was extremely cheap to reach millions and millions of people. Over time costs did grow a bit, because of the effectiveness of filtering, but at the same time if it's unlikely for your spam to be ready, how much would you be willing to pay for it? Not that much, hopefully.

Targeting does not necessarily reduce the cost of ads - for very valuable users the cost of an extremely targeted ad can be quite high. The question is then what happens to the total cost of the campaign. The article seems to imply that the cost of the campaign is low for low-quality sellers, and this is why targeted ads become a bad signal for buyers. But online ads are very often performance tracked, and the entire reason that some demographics are so expensive is that the ads to them perform well. If an ad is measurably giving a high-return on investment, then the advertiser should be pouring as much as they can into the campaign, which implies that campaign budgets for some targets go up, not down, and the quality signal to buyers should be higher, now lower.

So it seems like as targetting differentiates by consumer, it also differentiates by seller. The ad networks also allow choosing which publications to target, and higher quality publishers do cost more. So given some self-awareness about your own value for a given target and the quality of the publication you're reading, you could (given the signaling theory of ads is correct) get a better signal in many cases.


If we reject the author's claim that the purpose and value of advertising is solely a signalling mechanism similar to a peacock's feathers, then the entire argument fails.


And it's a very skewed perspective that would raise that, as any small business owner can tell you. It is not even the faintest exaggeration to say that every intentionally publicly facing point of information is advertising for every company of one sort or another, even down to things like office location, retail store location, and employee hiring practices.


Too bad 99% of the effort in the Valley is focused on this question. Hey, its almost as if the interests of capital are generally antithetical to the desires of most of humanity.


1. People care about how much they think an advertiser is spending on ads? Really?

2. I had my ad-blocker turned off for quite a while. I turned it back on when I was watching lots of short youtube videos, and seemed to be getting almost more video ads than actual content. If there was an option for "only block ads on these sites" (as opposed to "only allow ads on these sites"), I'd use it.

3. I don't care what some bigco that thinks I'm one data point out of a few million thinks about me. I would care what targeted ads (or content) show up if I'm doing something in an in-person-social context. So if I sign up to give a talk at a local UG, or go to a hackathon or something, I have a second browser that's not used for irrelevant stuff. And so doesn't have tracking cookies (including login cookies for anything social).


In regards to your first point,

Imagine you are in the market to buy a new phone.

Two flagship devices just came out, one from a well estaished brand that is a solid contender, and another from a company that is new to smartphones and had traditionally competed in other product areas.

The new entrant's product is superior and priced competitively.

You read that the established player is spending a record 300 million on advertising for their latest flagship. Meanwhile the new entrant, despite having a large corporation behind it, has not made any major announcements about its ad campaign, nor for that matter have you really heard much buzz outside of enthusiast circles.

At some point you'll realize the new product is DOA.


Re 2, you can do this by disabling easylist in ad block p. Then it only blocks things you add to the custom list.


> Why doesn’t Apple’s browser “help you connect and share with your favorite brands”?

Perhaps they are building such a system behind the scenes. Of course, all confined to the boundaries of their own ecosystem (the app store / itunes / and perhaps paid-for ads) Who knows what the future might bring to iOS users.


I don't mind high quality brands advertisement being displayed on pirate and even porn websites.

What I do mind is "one magic trick to lose fat" advertisement displayed on most popular, high quality websites.


If you ask somebody if they want personalized ads, of course they say no. That sounds creepy.

But in reality, those ads work, which means that people are more likely to make a voluntary economic transaction after seeing them than they would be in the base condition.

So this comes down to: do we believe what people say... or what they do?


You're missing a case, which is the one I fall into. I recognize that ads work and I don't want them too.

This is why I indiscriminately block or avoid them whenever I can. I would like to believe that I'm above the influence of ads but I'm not and I seem to have no control over my or my children's exposure to them. Sure, I could just not use the internet but that's only a small portion of the ads I see everyday; I can't watch TV, listen to radio, read newspapers or magazines, hell I can't even go out in public without being bombarded with them!

But on the internet I have at least a few tools to fight back, but they're slowly being eroded now that advertisers are paying for content itself.


> But in reality,

The ads aren't targeted. Or, I'm a really odd target. For example, after this comment section, the next ad I saw was this ad[1] from Dice (served via Doubleclick); a variant of this ad is running on a Billboard in SF, too. Every single variant that I've seen depicts a white or Indian male, typically trying to look sexy but inevitably only looking awkward. All I can think when I see them is "Yes, good, let's continue to perpetuate the stereotypes the industry is trying so hard to fix…". I'll not be using anything from them anytime soon, because of those ads.

Dice is one of the "good" ones, too. Not like all the "Want to live forever? The one weird trick doctors don't want you to know!" or whatever. Do advertisers really think I going to click an obviously fraudulent ad? You might argue "some do!" … but this is targeted ads, right? So surely by now you would know…

At one point, the ads _had_ determined that I was interested in buying computer parts correctly — although I got ads for disks when I was buying motherboards — then continued to display for months after the purchase, when I was of course no longer interested.

[1]: https://imgur.com/dCIgDQI


Disclaimer: I work for Google, although on Cloud Platform. I've never spent any time working on ads or anything related to it.

That said, I would say yes, I do want targeted ads.

When I search for things with the intent of buying something, the ads I see tend to be for high end products. For example, if I search for 'gas range' (something for which I'm currently in the market), I get ads for Bosch, Viking, and Garland. If I open an incognito tab and search I see results for Frigidaire, KitchenAid, and Hotpoint. If I'm going to see ads[0] I'd like them to be ads for things I might actually consider buying.

I don't see how it's substantially different from the personal shoppers offered by places like White House/Black Market and Nordstorm (I picked those two because my wife uses both of their services, but it's a common practice at many brick and mortar retailers). In the targeted ads case it's a set of algorithms which have, over time, learned my tastes and when I'm interested in making purchases. In her case it's a person who's done precisely the same thing.

[0]: In general I'd prefer not to, but I refuse to use ad blocking as it takes away support for the sites I visit from impression-based ads. I do use Google Contributor (https://www.google.com/contributor/welcome/) to eliminate ads wherever possible without compromising on financial support.


> But in reality, those ads work, which means that people are more likely to make a voluntary economic transaction after seeing them than they would be in the base condition.

That's precisely why I make sure to never see them :)

I wonder what the system thinks that Mirimir wants?


[flagged]


This is a gross mischaracterization of the OP's post, done in the most offensive way possible, at the expense of people who have suffered one of the most violent and traumatizing of possible crimes. To even attempt to compare rape victim behavior to advertising efficacy is disgusting and dehumanizing.

You should be ashamed of yourself, but I doubt you are.


I never said anything about rape victim behavior. I am a feminist and a radical; I see nothing wrong with connecting the logic of a rapist ("consent is not important") to OP's comment and denigrating this destructive attitude wherever I find it. And yes, I believe the two ARE connected. I find your comment thoughtless and reactionary.


> I never said anything about rape victim behavior.

You certainly implied this.

> I see nothing wrong with connecting the logic of a rapist ("consent is not important") to OP's comment and denigrating this destructive attitude wherever I find it.

The fact that you equate these two even abstractly is very surprising.

> I find your comment thoughtless and reactionary.

Likewise. Good day.


[flagged]


I'm not one of the people who flagged the parent comment but: Believe it or not, people in an adult conversation are capable of agreeing with (or at least finding interesting) the general content of a comment without finding the way it was phrased to be helpful or appropriate. Even your (failed) attempt at adult conversation in this comment had more substance and was more illuminating of the actual point than the flagged comment was.


The thing is, actual educated, reasoned adults should be capable of understanding the point a person is making, without straining at a gnat, and without making a mountain out of a mole hill.

Our society, says everyone, is way too sensitive and "PC". And, yet, we continue to attack people over the slightest perception of wrong doing.

It's ridiculous and childish.


[flagged]


I realise that the argument upsets you (and frankly, it's difficult to figure the analogy), but that doesn't make it wrong. A different analogy (that's quite as offensive) might be slavery (""" = fake quote):

"""If you ask somebody if they want to be enslaved, of course they say no. That sounds evil.

But in reality, slavery works, which means that people are more likely to work hard after being enslaved than they would be in the base condition.

So this comes down to: do we believe what people say... or what they do?"""


Who made you queen of the SJWs? It was a good analogy.


Such an imaginative title.




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