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The Slow Demise of Surveillance Advertising

May 29, 2019

By: Donata Kalnenaite

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Usually, the advertisements that I see are fairly innocuous - here’s some moisturizer full of cancer causing chemicals, some fast fashion jeans that a child made in Bangladesh or those new Airpods that will stop working in a few months and will pollute the planet for the rest of time. I think that by now everyone is used to those.

However, seeing an advertisement for Huggies for the first time in my life right after downloading some podcasts to explore whether I want to be a mother, well that was too much. I immediately closed out of Youtube and spent the rest of the day thinking “how did they know?” and “how dare they invade my privacy like this and use it to make money”?

The kicker is that “they” have been doing this for quite some time and “we” are finally starting to push back.

The type of advertising and marketing that is done now by large corporations can best be summed up by using the term “surveillance advertising.”

Surveillance advertising is the strategy of following a person almost everywhere they go, collecting the data of their (very personal) life and using that data to sell them stuff. For example, you could be walking to work, pass by a store and then receive ads from that store. You never went into the store, you never searched online for any of their items and you never consented to being tracked. And now surveillance advertising has you in its warm and sweaty grip.

Right now, there are too many scandals to count of how companies invade your privacy, fail to protect your information or fail to treat you as a human being.

The best part of all of this is the fact that surveillance advertising does not work. In fact, 75% of consumers find most forms of personalization creepy and 22% would take their business elsewhere. Harvard Business School researchers found that consumers are reluctant to engage with ads that they know have been served based on their activity on third party websites.

So what’s a marketer or advertiser to do?

We all understand that we live in the real world. Yes, surveillance advertising is horrible. However, we still need to advertise and/or market stuff. In fact, stuff is what makes the world go round! Here are a couple of tips for advertisers and marketers on how to reach audiences responsibly:

  1. Be transparent. Disclose what you are doing with people’s information, how and why. Consumers that believe that a brand is transparent regarding their practices are more likely to buy from that brand because the brand is showing itself to be trustworthy.
  2. Don’t go too far. Personalization is important. However, there are ways of advertising without surveillance. You could advertise based on the content of the platform on which you are advertising. The New York Times tried this old school method and their revenue went through the roof.
  3. Give your users a choice. Consent is important when it comes to tracking. Make sure that you are giving your users a free choice that they can exercise easily.

It is my hope that surveillance advertising will soon be over and we will move into a more respectful economy. Until then, it is up to each business owner to choose which side they want to be on and up to us to decide which brands we want to support.

donata holding a cute cat
Donata Kalnenaite
Termageddon

Donata is the President of Termageddon and the engineer behind the policy questions and text. She is a licensed attorney and a certified information privacy professional. She often volunteers at the Illinois State Bar Association holding courses on the General Data Protection Regulation where she teaches other attorneys on the importance of privacy and what Privacy Policies should contain.

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