Recently, I had the pleasure of attending Randy Feltface’s comedy performance at the Skyline Comedy Club. It was an all-around superb evening. Feltface, a purple puppet brought to life by Australian comedian Heath McIvor, knocked it out of the park. His set had not a single dull moment and culminated in the whole audience singing Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.”
There were only two sour spots of the evening: first, the comedy club ran out of root beer, a fact I will hold against them and Feltface himself until the end of time. Second, and more importantly, for every wonderful minute of this show, I was forced to concede some of my gratitude towards a targeted Facebook ad that had informed me of Feltface’s show and allowed me to buy tickets.
Targeted ads are the norm these days. It pains me to say they can be quite effective — all it costs is our privacy. The only question is, how much privacy are we giving up when we use social media, search engines, streaming services, etc.? To answer this question, I decided to test the limits of my data-divulging technology.
My first test was fairly straightforward. Being in need of a new pair of headphones, I did a couple of searches through Google to see what sort of products might be best for my budget. Then I exited out of the tab and let the cookies work their dark magic on my information. Sure enough, not more than two days later, I received several Instagram ads for headphones, one of which was to my liking. These headphones were cheap, too, and came in a design I liked. I clicked on this ad and bought the product without a second thought.
A few hours later, my second test began. I’d seen people on YouTube complain about searching once for obscure products only to have similar products flood their social media feeds, so I decided I would do a few quick searches for diapers and baby wipes. Being a senior here at Lawrence University, I am a few years removed from those items, so I was surprised to see no less than eight advertisements for Pampers and other baby products only eight hours after my searches. To my parents’ relief, I have yet to be a father, so I had no need for these items and clicked on none of them.
A day later, I put my microphone to the test. There is a suspicion that Alexa and other technologies may secretly be collecting data based on the conversations they can pick up through microphones. During my weekly Dungeons and Dragons session over Discord that evening, I made sure to insert a comment every five minutes about how much I enjoy tea and the drinking thereof, which, as many of my friends and classmates know, is a devious lie. Nevertheless, the next morning, six advertisements for tea-related paraphernalia appeared in my social media feed. I also received a spam email with the subject line, “Complete your order for TEA KETTLE before it’s too late!” The next time I’m in the mood to drink a soggy hiking boot, I know exactly where to buy my tea from. For now, I’m good.
The next day’s tests were more of the usual. Birdwatching gear, binoculars, etc. A few searches that morning before checking my ads that night. To my surprise, no ads for birding equipment. The only advertisements I got, surprisingly, were for bandages, med kits and several brands of wheelchairs. I figured the cookies must’ve been off their game that day.
I was getting close to finishing my experiment by this point. The following morning, I brought my computer to breakfast and turned its mic on to let it listen to our conversation. We talked a good deal about Formula 1 and the so-called “sport” of racing. As I left the breakfast table, I was just about to check and see what advertisements I’d received when the weirdest accident occured. Two men in suits and sunglasses bumped into me with a shovel, sending me tumbling down the Warch stairs. The fall brought back memories of my freshman year. Luckily, I knew exactly where to purchase my new wheelchair!
I didn’t leave my room for the next few days, nor did I have the energy to run any more experiments. However, when my YouTube videos began to run midroll ads for Facebook every ten seconds, I had a change of heart. I didn’t know what I was in the mood for that day, so I decided to scroll through Facebook Marketplace to see what would come up. After several items I had absolutely no interest in — a VR headset, an Amazon Echo and a bulletproof vest with the tagline of “You just may need it!” — the next advertisement I came across was for a subscription to Amazon Prime, the most useful thing I just then realized that I needed.
Over the next four days, I discovered the disturbingly accurate nature of my social media’s targeted advertising. I found six products I couldn’t resist! An Apple Watch — “Do you know how fast you can run? We do!” A Smart Mirror, which was just as efficient for “keeping an eye out for [my] health” as the ad stated. And my favorite, a Mark Zuckerberg body pillow. It even came with some features beyond what was advertised, like moving Zuck-eyes and a “scream in blood-curdling terror” setting for when you accidentally lock it in the closet.
Needless to say, at the end of the day, I got everything I was hoping for and more out of these products. Not all the advertisements I received were quite my style, but that’s the beauty of targeted advertisements: if the first one doesn’t get you, surely the next one will!