Targeted Advertising: The Future of Commerce, or Serious Invasion of Consumer Privacy?

NEW YORK - Years ago, a well-known story made its way around the news media regarding a father who's teenage daughter had been receiving mail ads for maternity clothing and nursery furniture from mega-retailer Target. 

In 2012, a widely circulated story surfaced about how mega-retailer Target figured out a teen girl was pregnant even before her father did. It turns out that, even in the early 2000s, national retail chains were using complex computer algorithms to determine products you may need based on previous purchases you have made. File photo: Pixabay.

It turns out that, even in the early 2000s, national retail chains were using complex computer algorithms to determine products you may need based on previous purchases you have made. Based on the purchases this gentleman's daughter had made, Target's computers had made an assumption – and a correct one – that she was indeed pregnant and even approximately estimated her due date. Based on that information, it automatically generated advertising mailers and sent them to her address.

On one hand, this demonstrates an incredible degree of sophistication when it comes to the technology in use; in fact, some people may actually enjoy the convenience that these so-called targeted ads may afford them. Many others, however, consider this a gross and horrific violation of privacy. Targeted ads often make use of any information you may give to any given company, in addition to often utilizing any readily available, public information that may be floating around as well; particularly information commonly found in any White Page directory, such as name, address, phone number, and more.

Also, bear in mind that the story above took place well over a decade ago. Obviously, technology has improved by leaps and bounds since then, so it's only natural to wonder just what information a company can glean from your past buying history now, and how they can tailor their advertising campaigns to take advantage of it. Again, some might prefer receiving advertising with a personal touch –  geared towards the types of purchases they've made in the past – but many people often find these ads a little too creepy. More often than not, consumers have been wondering “how the heck did they find THAT out about me?” upon receiving one of these unsolicited advertisements.

It's similar to how “cookies” behave- those files in your browser that keep track of your browsing history and in turn, can generate ads based on websites you've previously visited. It's all part of the targeted ad phenomenon, and nowadays the average person is practically bombarded with them on a daily basis. And it turns out that a vast majority of Americans – well over 60 percent – have said in online polls that they are not happy with having their behavior online tracked, analyzed, and essentially used against them for the sake of selling products.

Those involved in the poll that did not mind receiving targeted ads noted that they enjoyed seeing advertisements for things they were interested in, as opposed to random fluff that they would immediately tune out. In addition, those who minded targeted ads the least were young people up to the age of 29, who noted that it was a useful way to get information about goods and services they were interested in. However, a growing percentage of youth are also worried that they are spending too much time on their smartphones, a surprising statistic since everywhere you go, that's exactly what you see- young people with their faces glued on their phones constantly.

There's no doubt that the internet and smartphones have certainly brought a great deal of convenience into our lives, but unfortunately with that convenience comes a general loss of privacy. Consumers in today's digital age are giving up their anonymity, as well as their autonomy to act without being subtly and emotionally swayed by marketing experts wielding highly sophisticated computer software.

Reports also indicate that targeted advertising not only keeps track of what you have bought in the past, but can also actually figure out exactly what factors TRIGGER you to buy the things that you buy. It has led to advertising campaigns that may specifically attempt to exploit intense emotions – such as insecurity and depression – for the sole purpose of making a sale.

As for how to avoid being the target of targeted ads, that's actually a very difficult path to navigate. For everything we do know about how advertisers acquire, analyze, and use your personal data, there's more than likely just as much – if not more – that we don't know about it. Corporate advertising is a very secretive game, so the best you can do is simply try to use your common sense when navigating websites and social media, and try not to put anything there that you wouldn't want a total stranger to know. Otherwise, it's possible this just may have to be an accepted aspect of life in the digital age going forward; that is, unless you just take your computer and smartphone and throw them both right in the dumpster. But ultimately, it simply involves making your own decisions, despite whatever may pop up in your mailbox or in your social media feed.