Guest Post: Online advertising is messing with your mind
Updated: Feb 28
When you see an ad, what’s your first thought?
By: Kelly Finnerty @ Startpage
I’m sure it varies per message and medium, but has an ad ever made you laugh, feel sentimental or even scare you? Well, that’s the whole point. Advertisers are working their hardest to build an emotional connection and need between you and whatever they’re selling.
They start with trying to understand what you care about or are deathly afraid of to sway your opinion and fork over your money. In today’s always-on, hyper-connected digital landscape, advertisers have a gold mine of detailed information about you to play with. All they have to do is pay Big Tech and data harvesters for your personal data.
Below are only a few examples of intelligence savvy marketers can obtain about you with via 3rd party tracking:
Life stages: anything from starting in school to starting a relationship to starting a family to retiring
Health info: weight, amount of sleep, menstrual cycle, level of fitness, mental condition and physical issues
Relationship status and dating activity
Financial status and concerns
Level of education
Political and social beliefs
And the list goes on…
As outlined in a recent Privacy Please! article by Startpage, the global privacy technology company where I work, online tracking severely impacts people’s digital well-being. The average person in the U.S. sees between 4,000–10,000 ads every day. All of which are as personalized as possible to increase the chances that you will make that final click.
While I’ve heard many people, including my own Dad, claim they love when an ad is tailored to their tastes, we need to pause a moment and truly consider whether our opinions are our own to begin with. Or if our mindset has been altered and manipulated by the avalanche of ads we are subjected to every second.
A refusal to believe you can’t be swayed by marketing is naïve and unscientific. For one, psychology teaches us that even when we consciously reject certain adverts, they remain stuck in our subconscious, which increases the likelihood that we will buy the product at a later date. This phenomenon is called the “mere-exposure effect” — if we are repeatedly exposed to something, we start to view it in a more positive light. Therefore, advertising that is served to us again and again, changes our perception of things.
Don’t simply take my word for it, here are numerous real-world examples on how 3rd party tracking and online targeting has negatively impacted the lives of people just like you.
A few years ago, a supermarket chain disclosed the secret pregnancy of a young teenage girl before her own family was aware. After analyzing the young woman’s shopping behavior, the store had identified her as pregnant and started to send her corresponding advertising. When one of these pregnancy ads fell into the hands of her horrified father, more than just a few questions had to be answered at home.
After suffering from a stillbirth, journalist Gillian Brockell tried to stop the constant ads for baby products that continued to be served to her based on her previous searches for baby content. The algorithm figured this meant she had already given birth and started to bombard her with ads for the best nursing bras and videos on how to get a baby to sleep through the night. For Gillian, her daily internet visits turned into a personal nightmare.
Following her mother’s passing, Lindsay Robertson used Google search to help her with the organizational tasks at hand, including looking for gravestones. Immediately afterwards, corresponding ads start following her across the internet. Again and again, unwanted memories of the traumatic event are triggered, having a negative effect on her mental well-being.
As early as 2017, Facebook was able to tell its advertisers when teenagers felt “insecure” and “worthless” and “need a confidence boost” — thus, when they are particularly vulnerable to advertising. In 2021, the company was accused of failing to adequately protect teens from content that glorifies eating disorders on its platform Instagram.
Everything we do online leaves a data trail that reveals the most personal information about us. The TV documentary “Made to Measure” illustrates how precise these data profiles can be: A young woman’s entire life is reconstructed in great detail based on her search data, thereby revealing that invasive advertising negatively affected the protagonist’s mental state throughout her past five years.
With the help of third-party tracking data, a Catholic news magazine was able to secretly track the location data and phone of a priest who was using the dating app Grindr. The data, probably obtained from an advertising partner of the app, also enabled them to see that he was frequently visiting gay bars. He was forced to step down from his job.
Working for a privacy tech company forces me to face the realities of digital surveillance, I simply can’t ignore it. But don’t worry, the situation is not all doom and gloom. I’m very proud and pleased to share our latest privacy product that easily protects people’s 3rd party data from any website they visit.
It’s called Startpage Privacy Protection and it’s a desktop browser extension that blocks cookies & trackers, overrides social media tracking, provides privacy ratings per website, and ensures you’ll never have a search history. It’s free and helps give people on all technical levels the ability to control who can track their online activity; therefore, controls how much information advertisers can leverage against them in their marketing.
For me, the ability to reduce the amount of personal data being collected in my digital profile not only reduces annoying targeted ads, but also gives me the peace of mind that my thoughts are genuinely mine.
Startpage is a leading privacy technology company. Founded in the Netherlands in 2006, the company created the world’s first and most private search engine that has grown to become the preferred choice of anyone who cares about accurate search results as much as they care about their privacy. Startpage search doesn’t track, log, share or sell user data or search history. Follow the company on Twitter @startpage. or visit startpage.com
About Data Collaboration Alliance
The Data Collaboration Alliance is a nonprofit dedicated to helping the World's people, teams, and organizations get full control of their information. We see the elimination of copies as the key to supporting control, meaningful data ownership, and the transformative power of global Collaborative Intelligence. To learn more about free partnerships, visit: datacollaboration.org/partnerships