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Opinion Editorials

Targeted advertising is a serious, potentially invasive change in how business works.

(EDITORIAL) People get ads for all sorts of crazy things based on gender and age, but are targeted ads not incredibly invasive?

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Not what I was expecting

You know something? When I sat down to write today, I did not expect to be talking about gametes.

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I certainly had no expectation of addressing other people’s gametes, and the complex sociocultural narratives associated therewith. Though come to think of it, I can’t imagine talking about my own would be any less weird, so let’s start there. I have no insight as to the appropriate position of my own sex cells in the great digital metanarrative we all live with daily, let alone those of 3.6 billion perfect strangers.

The present

What I think I may have insight into is the rapidly changing nature of privacy, and the much less rapidly changing expectation of privacy, between consumer and advertiser.
For those of us in the business of ideas, especially the business of business ideas, over the last decade concepts like consumer metrics and Big Data have been, like, catnip covered in chocolate with an espresso chaser.

We’ve digitized, mathematized and monetized people in ways science fiction writers would have called shenanigans on a generation ago.

It would almost have been harder not to. The defining characteristic of the last 30 years has been an onslaught of available information that would have made Johann Gutenberg choke on his lager.

On the whole, consumers have been on board with that.

The collection of vast amounts of data by various external agencies has become an accepted part of daily life. At best, we sigh happily as Google transfers our YouTube preferences from laptop to phone to smart TV. At worst, we sigh over our news vendor of choice and Jimmy Fallon does jokes about the NSA that evening, or an equally adorable if less well-remunerated commentator helps you keep your DVR from going all Orwell on you.

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Then, because you’re a lady over 30, Instagram cheerily tells you to freeze your eggs.

Interesting fact: this was originally pitched as a “debunk” article. My boss is a mile smarter than me, has a fine-tuned BS detector (no idea how she puts up with my nonsense) and for her this didn’t cross any relevant line. It was just an ad for an objectionable product, something everybody lives with.

Wait, what?

I’m not so sure. In fact, I’m not sure at all, and I’m almost certain that’s the problem. The ad was over the line for the author. It wasn’t for my boss. It wasn’t for me either, and that’s what got my attention, because for incredibly obvious reasons I have no idea where that line is.

That’s a problem.

It’s a problem because it’s my job to know where that line is. It’s my job to think about this stuff, hard. Come to think of it, that’s probably why the aforementioned far more competent boss keeps me around: I invest serious brain time in informatics, predictive analysis, Big Data and lots of other lovely buzzwords. My thing is how ideas and people interact in the present business environment.

With all the expertise I’ve managed to acquire, I’m telling y’all – we haven’t done this.

We haven’t done anything like, anything that begins to aspire to be like, the legwork necessary to figuring out where the line is between predictive analytics and, you know, treating people as interchangeable numbers. Because that’s literally what that is. That’s what we’re doing, and a degree of it is absolutely necessary. Quantification of human behavior is behind power grids, potable water and WiFi.

We need those.

Going a further degree down that road, as with targeted ads and predictive matrices like credit scoring, may not be necessary, but it’s profitable, and I’ve got no beef with that either. But a degree beyond that is “hey, perfect stranger, I’d like to be involved in how you feel about your fertility cycle!” I don’t even have one of those, and my gut response is “&%$# yourself and everyone involved with you.”

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That is an undesirable outcome, both from a business perspective and from the perspective of being a semi-decent human being.

We haven’t properly parsed how far apart the degrees are. On the whole, we haven’t even made a systematic effort to find out.

Do better

Maybe the article’s an overreaction. I’m not sure. I am sure telling someone “your offense over our approach is petty and irrelevant” is a fast path to no money.

If we’re interested in maintaining both profit and the ability to look in the mirror without gagging, it’s well past time we figured out just how well you need to know someone before telling them what to do with their cells.

#NoMoreInvasion

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Written By

Matt Salter is a writer and former fundraising and communications officer for nonprofit organizations, including Volunteers of America and PICO National Network. He’s excited to put his knowledge of fundraising, marketing, and all things digital to work for your reading enjoyment. When not writing about himself in the third person, Matt enjoys horror movies and tabletop gaming, and can usually be found somewhere in the DFW Metroplex with WiFi and a good all-day breakfast.

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