In perhaps the most Big Brother-like marketing incident that has ever hit the media, a large department store determined a girl was pregnant before her father did.

Companies turn your online behaviour into data used to market their advertisements in a more effective manner. Photo by Christina Manocchio

Companies turn your online behaviour into data used to market their advertisements in a more effective manner. Photo by Christina Manocchio

Data analysts working for Target discovered that women who later signed up for a baby registry had similar purchasing habits while pregnant, such as an influx of unscented lotion. Target was able to correlate these statistics with other women and if they matched, they estimated that she was expecting and would proceed to send her baby-related advertisements.

Target, aptly named in this case, did just that. A father was furious that his daughter was receiving personalized maternity ads and called to complain since she was quite young. But soon he called back to apologize, since he found out that she was indeed expecting.

Incidents this intense may not be common but what some describe as ‘creepy’ marketing happens all of the time.

“I’ll look up Las Vegas flights on Expedia, then log onto Facebook and they’re advertising the exact flights I was searching,” Laurier student Christina Pelone says.

Laurier alumni Sourov De, co-founder of Stryve Digital Marketing, says that this marketing strategy is called retargeting. De explains how “the product literally follows you around the internet”.

“What happens is that browsers can track your cookies and understand your browser history,” he said.

“It’s scary to think that they’re collecting all this info from you,” Pelone says. “It’s a complete invasion of privacy.”

De is quick to point out that this is an extreme in customized marketing. His company, which has done work for clients such as TD Bank and Wilfrid Laurier University, offers customized marketing but on a less individualized scale. Stryve Digital Marketing only uses Facebook’s demographic and geographic information. Although Facebook can use statuses, ‘likes’ and other activity for its targeting, this information is not available to advertising agencies.

Facebook was in hot water earlier this year for conducting a psychological experiment on hundreds of thousands of users by manipulating their newsfeeds to be more negatively emotional than they truly were. This may not be used for marketing but this incident demonstrates the power that digital companies have, and do, exercise.

Customized marketing varies depending on the medium, company and consumer. It can be as simple as placing the consumer’s name right into the advertisement.

Stryve’s customized marketing looks at online behaviour like “what people are looking for, where they are looking for it, what type of search terms they’re putting in, how often they search for something” to make strategic decisions. Their target audience’s behaviour can allow them to choose what social media platform to use, for instance. They also use statistical probabilities like if a particular gender clicks on a different ad than another.

“It doesn’t really matter what an individual is doing, to a marketer. We want to understand how many people are doing it,” De said.

Although there are negative effects, customized marketing can also improve people’s advertising experience. Instead of wasting time, perhaps these ads are genuinely useful.

“The benefit to the consumer… is that you really only get to see the ads that interest you,” De said.

Chris Gabriel, 19, likes that his advertisements are tailored to his interests. He says that the video game ads he sees regularly keep him up-to-date. But Gabriel is not always pleased with these targeted ads.

“They can get pretty annoying from time to time, especially if they repeat themselves and all you get is the same ad,” he said.

Customized marketing is a new field that is continually growing as technology progresses. Like many business tactics, it can be both positive and negative depending on the circumstance.

Next time you are online and see an ad pop up, think about why they want you to see it.

About The Author

I choose what to write about by asking myself what questions people have and why they have not yet been answered; I delve into issues many shy away from.

Although my passion lies in revolutionizing human sexuality, I tell any story that helps us see fresh perspectives, achieve social justice or understand ourselves. I strive to make these sometimes dense or distant issues resonate with you by talking to real people with real experiences.

Society needs change. As a journalist and humanitarian, I challenge society’s assumptions and make us analyze our world. Through my work, I create conversations.

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