How to Be Savvy in the Age of Hyper-Targeted Advertising

Beware of targeted digital ads.

Posted Sep 21, 2020

Last month, my Facebook feed abruptly changed from being sprinkled with ads for home delivery of wine to ads for puppy toys and other puppy essentials.

I laughed, realizing that the change in advertising certainly said a lot about me: In the past week, I had commented on a friend’s post that I "couldn’t wait to get together for Happy Hour!" and a few days earlier, had been talking with my family about adopting a dog. Yet further reflection on this began to worry me. How did Facebook know I was about to get a puppy when I didn’t even have one yet?

Most of us are aware that we live in a hyper-targeted world, though the extent of this targeting is often much more elusive. Every move we make in the digital world is observed, recorded, saved, and analyzed by the platforms we interact with every day.

Much of the draw of social media comes from the fact that users don’t have to “pay” to support social media platforms in the traditional sense — instead, these platforms make money through strategic advertising. And as recently highlighted in the recent Netflix hit, The Social Dilemma, the personal data shared on these platforms makes it easy for marketers to pinpoint and infiltrate our personal lives and influence buying decisions through targeted ads. Every interaction, from “likes” to “clicks” to sharing, is information that becomes data for advertising. In fact, research suggests that the very empowerment we feel when we use our digital devices and social media can be a form of latent vulnerability.

While the merits and pitfalls of targeted advertising are certainly up for debate, understanding the psychology behind existing marketing tactics can help social media users stay savvy and maintain control when it comes to making decisions on a final purchase.

Firstly, know the reasons for the ads you do see. Algorithms are designed to pull relevant information to provide ads tailored specifically to the target customer’s needs, helping to weed out the noise and clutter of non-relevant marketing. Rather than forcing me to look at an ad about baby products or menswear, Facebook served me puppy ads that, though creepy, align with things I eventually would be searching for anyway. Hyper-targeting plays into the psychology of decision making, eliminating fatigue from choice overload and using our data to pinpoint exactly what it is we are searching for.

Secondly, it is well established that word of mouth is the best way to secure a sale, and advertisers know this. According to a study in the International Journal of Market Research, trust plays a significant role in e-commerce by directly influencing users’ intention to buy and indirectly influencing the perceived usefulness of the product. If advertisers are not considered as commercial intruders, but as trustworthy, useful, and respectful social partners, their messages are likely to be received more positively. Ads on social media are therefore likely to use tactics such as showcasing which of your friends or family are following their pages, highlight positive reviews on their pages, and even use your own click through to the ad to serve additional ads to your followers.

And finally, the method we use to access social media platforms also influences our perception of trust in the platforms we use. The increasing role of mobile phones in how users construct and communicate their extended self-identity has a direct impact on their trust in the social media platforms they use. We are served ads based on algorithms that predict our likely interest in them. But while this targeting ability makes many marketing messages more relevant (I was indeed curious about those online wine delivery services!), it can also seem intrusive and violating, such as when my own stomach churned at the previously mentioned puppy ad.

In a study for the Journal of Advertising Research, my colleagues and I found that trust in Facebook makes us more accepting of the presence of ads and reduces their perceived intrusiveness. Yet interestingly, users were more likely to be wary of the platform when accessing them from their mobile devices than they were when using a desktop computer. This concern stems from all the other information that we give away with our phone such as geolocation, or even our daily routines (moving around, driving, what time we get up, etc). Social media consumption and the data that it produces is a goldmine for advertisers, even more so with the uptick in social media use during COVID-19.

How can we be smarter consumers of social media? The simplest way to manifest control over our virtual advertising destiny is to be aware and beware. The age-old adage “knowledge is power” holds true in the world of digital ads, and there are a number of ways to easily access the data online platforms know and share about you. Most social platforms provide instructions for understanding and altering the way social media ads are served to you, be it on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn. By understanding the tactics used by digital marketing and how it intertwines with our hardwired decision-making processes, we can feel more assured in our final decision of whether to click through to that puppy chow ad, or whether to pass.