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What ad-targeting and zombies have in common

Online advertisements which predict our desires too directly gives us an uneasy feeling. This begs the question: How far can ad-targeting take the technology before users feel like they're losing control?

by Louis Morales-Chanard On May 31, 2011

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In an article recently published by Wired, journalist Felix Salmon gives some food for thought regarding the limitations of ad-targeting on the Internet – a marketing practice that is inevitable and continues to intensify.

Salmon asserted that after a certain level of precision, ad-targeting seems to have a counterproductive effect by repulsing users more than sparking their interest. The Journalist’s approach to this tipping point is similar to the uncanny valley concept. According to this theory coined by Japanese robotics expert Masahiro Mori, humanoid robotics must either deliberately reject trying to resemble humans, or must be perfectly identical – but certainly can not exist between these extremes (hence the “valley” concept) as this could result in an outright rejection by real humans. The Wikipedia graph (right) demonstrates the degrees of “acceptable”  human resemblance.

In returning to ad-targeting, the “uncanny valley” effect is when advertisements becomes so obviously to the point that it freaks out users while they are in front of their computer screens. Similar to the original theory, it’s possible to get out of this limbo area by pushing targeting’s logic while making sure it’s accepted by users (such as Facebook’s opt-in Instant Personalization). It’s vital to hide the marketing behind the product and/or content, as this makes the targeting just as useful to both users and advertisers.

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Why does ad-targeting make us uncomfortable?

There is that uneasy feeling of being watched (“So, I know you tried to make a quiche last week…how would you like to buy a book called 1001 Tarts or a dozen eggs for dinner tomorrow night?”). Ad-targeting – with its harmless intentions – functions on an Internet which  can easily turn into a panopticon system. The public is knowledgeable on privacy issues and is increasingly concerned about protection in the digital age. The public’s fears – as founded as they are unfounded – are regularly revived by one scandal or another (including the latest concerning Apple’s iPhone, which would collect users’ geolocation data without their consent). There is a general suspicion vis-à-vis new technologies, and some people have even called for measures for  better control over personal data and to know what they know(to borrow the Wall Street Journal’s title for their article and app on the subject).

Yet it appears the reasons for rejecting focused advertisements on the Internet dive deeper into the human psyche. Targeting which is too precise causes a reaction of disgust and fear because it exposes the nature of a humanity’s predictability.

Our generation celebrates the power of data, and many see its collection and exploitation on a large scale to be the foundation of a new scientific and humanistic revolution (notably due to the smartphone an object we always carry with us, yet is open to the rest of the world). Conversely, the data cult’s ad-targeting reveals man’s determination and could break the convention paradigm of the individual being ultimately all powerful and in control – albeit not always rational, but at least free to act.

As such, an advertisement which hits too closely on the mark makes us unconsciously focus on our own limitation – and question our own unique character of being human.


This article was originally published on Pocket Zeitgeist
Photo Credits: FlickR CC  muskva; Wikimedia Commons
Translation: Stefanie Chernow

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