Can Targeted Marketing be Separated from Targeted Manipulation?

Stephen DeAngelis

January 2, 2019

People need and want goods and services and businesses need and want to sell consumers the goods and services for which they are looking. Matching needs and wants with goods and services is the basic goal of targeting marketing. Jason Spero (@Speroman), Vice President of Global Performance Solutions at Google, explains, “As a marketer, chances are you’ve used consumer intent signals to understand what your customers want and then delivered relevant experiences to them. But have you ever used intent signals to predict what your customers want? Today, marketing technology allows you to do just that.”[1] Nathalie Maréchal (@MarechalPhD), a senior research fellow at Ranking Digital Rights, admits the basic premise behind targeting marketing is a win-win proposition. She explains, “People around the world [can] watch cat videos, see pictures of each others’ babies in Halloween costumes, connect with family, friends, and colleagues around the globe, and more. In return, companies … show them ads that [are] actually relevant to them. Contextual advertising had supported the print and broadcast media for decades, so this was the logical next step.”[2] Bad people, however, have a way of turning a good thing into something not so good and Maréchal believes those people are ruining the benefits of targeted marketing for everybody else.


The fine line between assistance and manipulation


Does targeting marketing work? Even critics admit it does. In their minds, targeted advertising works too well. Zeynep Tufekci (@zeynep), a techno-sociologist professor at the University of North Carolina, believes consumers have made a Faustian bargain with social media outlets. On the positive side, she notes, “We use digital platforms because they provide us with great value. I use Facebook to keep in touch with friends and family around the world. I’ve written about how crucial social media is for social movements. I have studied how these technologies can be used to circumvent censorship around the world.”[3] On the negative side, Tufekci agrees with Maréchal that targeted messaging can have devastating consequences. Maréchal notes malefactors are using targeted marketing techniques to propel “right-wing authoritarians to power in the US, the Philippines, and Brazil, and being used to fan the flames of xenophobia, racial hatred, and even genocide around the world.” Tufekci adds, “It’s not that the people who run, you know, Facebook or Google are maliciously and deliberately trying to make the country or the world more polarized and encourage extremism. I read the many well-intentioned statements that these people put out. But it’s not the intent or the statements people in technology make that matter, it’s the structures and business models they’re building. And that’s the core of the problem. Either Facebook is a giant con of half a trillion dollars and ads don’t work on the site, it doesn’t work as a persuasion architecture, or its power of influence is of great concern. It’s either one or the other. It’s similar for Google, too.”[3] In other words, both Maréchal and Tufekci insist the success of disinformation campaigns run by malefactors proves targeted advertising works.


Can targeted marketing be separated from targeted manipulation?


The effectiveness of targeted marketing means retailers are going to continue to use it in their efforts to reach consumers and make a profit. Who can blame them? They spend billions of dollars on advertising and want to get the biggest bang for their buck. The bargain consumers have made with online service providers is for the provision of free or affordable services in exchange for personal data. Tim Libert, a faculty member in Carnegie Mellon University’s CyLab Security and Privacy Institute, explained to Maréchal that companies use artificial intelligence and machine learning to analyze data in order to improve targeted marketing results. And he notes, marketers are “getting better at guessing what ads to show you.” He added, “Every tiny bit of data increases the chances they show the ‘right’ ad so they never stop, they never sleep, and they never respect your privacy — every single day everybody at Google collectively works to one purpose: getting the percentage of ‘right’ ads shown slightly higher.” Tufekci insists, “This needs to change.” Her primary concern seems to be protecting personal data. Recently enacted privacy laws (e.g., the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) of 2018) are aimed at protecting consumers’ personal data and companies wanting to continue benefiting from targeted marketing must do a better job to ensure that happens. The problem is such regulation does not address targeted manipulation.


Nobody knows how to isolate targeted marketing from targeted manipulation. Tufekci admits, “I can’t offer a simple recipe, because we need to restructure the whole way our digital technology operates. Everything from the way technology is developed to the way the incentives, economic and otherwise, are built into the system. We have to face and try to deal with the lack of transparency created by the proprietary algorithms, the structural challenge of machine learning’s opacity, all this indiscriminate data that’s being collected about us. We have a big task in front of us. We have to mobilize our technology, our creativity and yes, our politics so that we can build artificial intelligence that supports us in our human goals but that is also constrained by our human values. And I understand this won’t be easy. We might not even easily agree on what those terms mean.” How that data is eventually used (i.e., for advertising or manipulation) lies at the heart of the dilemma; which is why so many people including, Apple’s Tim Cook and IBM’s Ginni Rometty, have slammed big data companies for abusing user data.[4] Even with regulation, however, it’s unclear how big data companies can limit how their data will eventually be used. They can restrict access to data once a malefactor has been identified; but, people have lied, and will continue to lie, about who they are and why they want access to data. Like Tufekci, Maréchal has no answers to this conundrum. She writes, “The onus is on Silicon Valley to demonstrate that firms can guard against surveillance capitalism’s gravest harms without uprooting their business models — or better yet, to find new revenue streams that don’t rely on commodifying people’s private behavior. This is all the more important because people can’t meaningfully opt out.” The answer, if one can be found, will have its roots in how data is collected, anonymized, and stored. Cognitive technologies are users of data not creators of data.


Concluding thoughts


Critics should neither ask nor expect marketers to abandon targeted marketing. It’s simply too effective. Mike Austin (@MikeTheTechie), co-founder and CEO at Fresh Relevance, explains, “Converting a one-time buyer into a repeat customer is the single most effective way for many businesses to grow, and one of the best ways to do this is by offering a personalized customer experience. With the virtually limitless shopping options consumers have in the palms of their hands, retailers can differentiate themselves from competitors by tailoring their marketing to the individual customer. Targeted email and web marketing are highly effective retention tools provided the underlying data is available.”[5] Unfortunately, such techniques are also highly effective for those wanting to manipulate public opinion.


[1] Jason Spero, “In the age of assistance, delivering growth starts with predicting what people want,” Think with Google, August 2018.
[2] Nathalie Maréchal, “Targeted Advertising Is Ruining the Internet and Breaking the World,” Motherboard, 16 November 2018.
[3] Zeynep Tufekci, “We’re building a dystopia just to make people click on ads,”, September 2017.
[4] Bloomberg, “A ‘Trust Crisis:’ IBM CEO Ginni Rometty Joins Apple’s Tim Cook in Slamming Tech’s Abuse of User Data,” Fortune, 27 November 2018.
[5] Mike Austin, “How Using the Right Customer Data Yields Better Personalization,” MultiChannel Merchant, 5 November 2018.