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Is targeted advertizing evil?

The short answer: yes, and… no.

DHH in his latest post on Signal v. Noise:

The world of commerce spun around just fine in the era before ads could be targeted by personal information. When ad buyers would place their spots based on context. Got a new car to sell? Put an ad on a website that talks about cars. Maybe it wasn’t as efficient, or maybe it was.

The issue is more complex in my opinion. Our economy relies on consumption, and the bigger it is the higher is the stock price. This model requires either for products to serve rather short life spans (modern light bulbs) or for producers to come up with periodic innovations (smartphone upgrades).

Because many companies opted in for the second approach, they were introducing innovations without considering environmental or ethical impact. Innovation brings little value if it doesn’t optimise (or disrupt) the existing process: it either shaves off several moments of unnecessary friction from my life, or it’s “meh” and “why do I even need it?”

We had many years of successful iterative innovation in the tech industry. As a result, individuals became more productive. One can do more tasks with less latency than in previous years. During a 10 minute bus ride, one can call their parents, buy groceries for a dinner party and edit a sales deck. Think how much time the same actions would take them in 1985.

I’ll derail here a bit. Think what can replace a smartphone considering the fact it needs to make us even more productive. Hint: you’ll need 30 seconds to perform the same tasks in 20 years time, and don’t even ask me how — I’m excited and terrified at the same time.

Back to the topic. We switch contexts multiple times every minute. The speed of life has increased. The time we spend making a decision, especially a simple one, has decreased. Having a billboard ad in a few places in the city is not enough: an individual might not even have a chance to visit these places before they need (or want, because if I can then I should) to make the decision. Marketing departments understand that, so they began the race for our attention. Because workplace can be more productive, and individuals want to progress in their careers and keep their skills valuable, and there’s an incentive to bring more sales, they come up with smarter ways to find customers.

That’s how we’ve arrived needing data scientist in the modern online commerce. Being data-driven is a virtue these days. If a business doesn’t fine tune their target audience search, then they won’t stay long above the water.

I see it like so: consumption -> innovation -> increased productivity -> increased competition -> fine tuning of sales processes -> targeted advertisement based on personal data.

The questions is not how to stop tracking customers, because it’s just a consequence. It will happen naturally when we stop consuming more than we need.

If an online commerce resource stops targeting their customers, then it becomes less competitive. Ofcourse there are other ways to market, for example delivering an exceptional quality. Nobody googles what phone they need to buy if they want an iPhone. Apple has built an incredible business with a word of mouth and a great image. Yet, can you please remind me why did their phone sales drop in the last quarter?

I’m probably wrong, and would like to hear what other people, who know more about the subject, think.

Last edited on Jan 21, 2019