Do contemporary companies use microtargeting to subliminally advertise?
November 13, 2014 4:33 PM   Subscribe

Hello. I'm having problems at the moment with feeling like I'm being microtargetted. After reading the November issue of Wired, it seems data brokers know everything about everybody.

There was a Derren Brown episode of Mind Control where he showed he could influence people's unconscious decision processes with subtle cues when they were out and about. You could probably find a video of that on Youtube.

What I'd like to know is, has anyone else had the experience of feeling that their shopping visits influence the appearance of passerbys, random litter and other ostensibly random factors when they're in s city? Knowing how microtargetting is used by businesses, I'd be interested to know where the boundaries between a shopping experience and a walk out in the city end?

Thanks for any advice re: the above.
posted by Musashi Daryl to Shopping (10 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Companies use targeting to send direct mail, email promotions, push banner ads, offer rewards and coupons, etc... They don't send out masses of people to follow you around, dump microtargetted litter, or anything of the sort. Among other reasons, there's no way such labor intensive work would make economic sense.

I really don't know any other way to say it. If you think passersby and random litter are regularly targeted to you, then I strongly recommend you seek professional help.
posted by zachlipton at 4:39 PM on November 13, 2014 [26 favorites]

Sure. It's probably this.
posted by prize bull octorok at 4:40 PM on November 13, 2014 [5 favorites]

Microtargetting is just not that good. The ads that follow you with the exact pages of a site you visited are simple enough, but look at something like the bluekai registry - BlueKai is one of the companies that advertisers use to target specific things to specific people; they're the ones following your online activity to see what you're interested in. I don't know about you, but mine is insanely broad and surprisingly inaccurate. For example, Location & Neighborhood has both my correct area as well as Sioux Falls, SD, a place I've never been to in a state I've never been to, with nobody I know living there and as far as I can remember I've never had any interest in or looked up specifically online. The "what others may know about you" section has 5 different age ranges in the first 3 pages. At least it knows I'm over 7, I guess.

Unless there is something really, really special about you personally (like you often spending literally millions of dollars places), the cost benefit in putting extra effort into targeting to you is just not worth it. And how would a piece of litter or a person walking by you be targeting you and not everyone else around you also?
posted by brainmouse at 4:50 PM on November 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

I think there's a middle ground between "businesses are specifically targeting me with random passers-by and litter" and "this is not a thing at all."

For example, think about the concept of buzz. You can go from total lack of awareness of a product to feeling like it's omnipresent, basically just because of buzz. This is partially in the media and online, but also partially based on the behavior of the people around you. For example it's definitely possible to go from totally unaware of, for example, Frye leather boots, to suddenly start seeing people wearing them everywhere. Nobody is casting passers-by and costuming them in Frye boots, it's just that a lot of regular people have picked up on the buzz that they're trendy. Thus you start noticing them everywhere, and maybe even thinking that you'd like a pair.

You could even extrapolate this to litter. Maybe you went your whole life without knowing there was a Bed, Bath & Beyond in your town, and then one day you saw a bunch of BB&B coupons blowing in the wind and now it feels like every time you drive down that one street, there it is, begging you to go in and spend money. The company prints mailers and issues coupons in order to build buzz. The primary goal is to attract the attention of people who leaf through the paper, check their mail, clip coupons, etc. But a secondary effect is that their paper crap ends up everywhere, subtly influencing even people who aren't looking for deals on domestic goods.
posted by Sara C. at 5:00 PM on November 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

I just talked with the head of the World Privacy Forum the other day about data brokers and collection. I can assure you that while they are definitely the scariest privacy invasion thing out there, they are nowhere near the level where individual retailers could pay for data on you and tailor the shop or surroundings to you.

That said shops ARE deliberately designed to remind you of what to buy, to retain you indefinitely, to put things in your way that you saw on TV, in magazines, etc. You're being targeted simply as the "goes to this kind of shop" demographic.

The next thing in microtargeting will be you getting coupons for certain products on your phone when you're detected as being near a place that sells it. You'll probably have to opt into this, though. But it's still nowhere near the level of targeting you're worried about.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 5:07 PM on November 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

I am a privacy professional and have studied data brokers and targeted advertising extensively.

What I'd like to know is, has anyone else had the experience of feeling that their shopping visits influence the appearance of passerbys, random litter and other ostensibly random factors when they're in s city?

I 100% guarantee you that this is not a thing that is deliberately cultivated by advertisers.

Knowing how microtargetting is used by businesses, I'd be interested to know where the boundaries between a shopping experience and a walk out in the city end?

Some shopping centres are gathering information about how people move through their centre, and through individual shops, in aggregate. They do this by tracking the radio transmissions from cell phones. They don't identify you, but they can tell one individual from another. They are not interested in the actions of an individual, they are interested in the behaviours of the group. They use this information to optimise the layouts of the shopping centre, calculate rents more accurately, decide whether to give one display or another more prominence.

I have seen some electronic billboards that can approximately detect gender and age [this is an old article, and the technology has progressed considerably], and decide whether to display an ad that fits that demographic.

It is possible that, in future, new combinations of data sources and data analysis techniques would allow electronic billboards to deliver more highly targeted ads as an individual walks by. There are currently efforts to make targeting ads delivered by digital billboards more highly targeted, more like online ads.

But the kind of thing that you are talking about - manipulating analogue objects as a specific individual walks by, to target that individual in particular - would be so absurdly resource intensive that it would not even be considered an option by any advertiser.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 5:35 PM on November 13, 2014 [10 favorites]

What zachlipton said. If you are truly feeling that you are being targeted in this way, it would be a very, very good idea to visit a professional therapist/psychologist/psychiatrist for a reality check, and for help dealing with this if you are in fact suffering from a delusion.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 5:39 PM on November 13, 2014 [14 favorites]

Companies who advertise have a hard enough time just staying in business without spending tons of time, money and manpower coming up with a bunch of narrowly tailored ads that are then displayed to some small subset of possible customers. It's much more cost efficient to try and reach the most people possible with the a single mundane message. Marketing and advertising people simply aren't that smart, it's hard enough for them to come up with something that isn't ignored by 99.99% of the universe.
posted by rhizome at 8:35 PM on November 13, 2014

My online micro targeting experience is being relentlessly asked to buy a thing I have (a) already bought or (b) already decided not to buy. In another words, absurdly ineffective from the get-go.
posted by MattD at 4:43 AM on November 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Microtargeting is pretty much restricted to online ads, cell phone apps, direct mail, and telemarketing. It's just not cost-effective or feasible to try to alter a city environment to target just a few people.
posted by Jacqueline at 6:54 AM on November 14, 2014

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