People demonstrate their preferences through the choices they make. And there are versions of everything on the Internet that are not supported by advertising. But people don’t choose them. Instead, they stick with the free ad-supported services from tech giants like Google and Facebook. Why? Because we actually like seeing personalized advertising.
It is true that many people have some low-level privacy concerns. But the preferences that they reveal through their actions are that, for the most part, they are not very concerned about privacy at all. It’s just not a big issue for the average person.
The reason privacy is in the news lately is that competitors and politicians attacking the big tech firms are hyping it up, not that everyday people care all that much. Maybe public opinion will shift with time. But it certainly hasn’t yet.
When we have a choice between privacy and ad-supported social media systems, we choose the social media systems that allow personalized ads and complain when those ads aren’t personalized enough. Every few days, I notice someone that I’m connected with complaining about how the ads they are show aren’t personalized ENOUGH.
A happily “child free” woman I know recently wrote:
“Dear Facebook advert algorithm minions: this is a friendly reminder that once again, all your ads about assisted fertility and baby stuff are ridiculously off the mark. Please stop it. This is getting tedious.”
Here’s another recent Facebook post on the same theme from my mother:
“Dear Facebook — You’re gonna hafta ‘splain to me why you think I’d be interested in a sponsored ad from the City of El Segundo. I just don’t understand.”
What do posts like this tell us? They tell us that people have come to expect highly personalized ads. And it actually irritates them when they see ads that aren’t relevant. They want personalization more than they want privacy. They want the ad platforms to know enough about them that they are only shown relevant ads.
Before modern digital advertising, targeting options were very primitive. As someone read articles in the newspaper they would be confronted by a wall of ads, most of which were not relevant at all. That was normal. We were used to it. Nobody got mad that the newspaper showed them ads that weren’t intended for them.
But in a more intimate and personalized environment, like while scrolling through our Facebook feeds, we have all come to expect that the ads will be highly relevant to us. If we are faced with a series of irrelevant ads like what newspapers used to deliver, we actually get irritated enough to complain publicly about it.
Most people don’t want to live in a world with untargeted ads. And they don’t want to live in a world where they have to pay subscription fees for all the things that used to cost money like news, or phone calls, or finding directions. The proliferation of ad-supported free services has greatly improved the quality of life of most of humanity. And while we all have some privacy concerns, if we were deeply concerned we could make other choices at any point. Some people do. Most don’t.
Modern digital advertising can complement the social spaces that we occupy online, and deliver just the right amount of personalization without being repetitive or creepy. The right ads at the right time in the right place help people find what they’re looking for and surround them with new products and services that they value and want to consider.
Being shown relevant and personalized ads helps us discover new things that we actually want to discover. That’s something that most people value. Perhaps we don’t always articulate it in that way. I don’t hear anyone gushing about how great the ads are on Facebook when they’re done just right and blend into the fabric of the platform. But when we complain about seeing the wrong ads, that speaks volumes about what we really value. And we really value highly personalized ads that help us discover more of what we’re interested in.