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We tend to think of personalized digital marketing as a benign annoyance that we have to put up with because “that’s just the way it is.” We know it is happening to us, but we brush it off. Are we truly understanding what digital marketing is? Or is it too uncomfortable to acknowledge what it may actually be doing: changing the very way we think and feel on a day-to-day basis.
I would not be so concerned if I went online and saw a guy holding up a sign that markets his small business, perhaps a shoe store in a local town. I am bothered when an advertisement shows up 37 times in one week, timed specifically to the minute right before I put my shoes on, again right after I feel emotional after a difficult day, and then again playing off fears and insecurities it has learned about me over the years. The advertisement is not just a guy holding a sign; it is a funny music video with my favorite genre of music, every detail of the ad perfectly curated to my taste. The ad consumes my attention, leveraging my fears and insecurities.
This is problematic because it does not encourage a person to explore new preferences or seek out new items or services that they may not have known before. It does not leave it up to the consumer to make a decision about how a product or service fits into their life. It manifests a problem, which I internalize, and then creates a solution for it. With regular exposure, digital advertisements have the possibility of altering the fabric of our daily life, changing who we are and what we care about.
Changing Definitions of “Marketing”
In 1935, the American Marketing Association originally defined “marketing” as “The performance of business activities that direct the flow of goods and services from producers to consumers” (Ringold & Weitz, 2007). This definition stood for 50 years before it was updated, likely due to the surge of technological advances at the end of the 20th century. The definition today comes from 2007, which is supposed to be updated every three years by a panel of marketing academics. The 2007 version reads, “Marketing is the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large” (AMA, 2007).
The problem with this version is that it is inaccurate to say all marketing is creating value for the consumer or society at large. It does not account for widespread practices that, while legal, are often devious and suspect. We cannot say value is being created if we do not have the decision-making capacity to choose specific values. When we loosen the reins of our voluntary attention, as we spend longer periods of time on a device due to our internal reward system being hijacked, it becomes unclear if there is value being created at all. It may just be that companies can demand individuals adhere to their specific values and manipulate human psychology to ensure this happens.
This effect is even more pronounced in children and adolescents whose prefrontal cortices and limbic systems are not fully mature, leading to phenomena such as addictive behavior, decreased inhibitory control of behaviors, decreased high-level reasoning, and increased focus on immediate benefits (Diekema, 2020). There is an overwhelming amount of disturbing behaviors that companies utilize to prey on users such as hyper-targeting, geo-tagging, and exploiting one’s neuropsychological functions. However, they all involve the common currency of the Internet: attention.
Our Attention: A Multi-Billion-Dollar Industry
Attention is not just something occasionally monetized by businesses; it is an entire multi-billion-dollar industry. In order to make the big dollars, your attention needs to be standardized so that each second you give to a company can be paid out accordingly. This is why the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) was created. The IAB is a coalition of private media companies that develops standards of practice, does research, and provides legal support for online advertising companies.
In 2004, IAB created the “Ad impression measurement guidelines.” Within these guidelines was the standard measure of ad viewability or the “viewable impression.” This is when 50 percent of the pixels in an advertisement are visible on the browser page for greater than or equal to one second (Hwang, 2020). So, if a business wanted to, it could calculate precisely how much money it made based off of the 4.32 minutes you spent engaging with its ads. It would not seem problematic if these ads simply tracked data for the sake of the company’s revenue streams, but AI continues to enhance the ability for advertisements to play a larger role in your life. This precision and data collection over time is optimized so companies can eventually get you to stay 4.39 minutes the next time and maybe 5 minutes the next. The algorithm will continue to optimize for the most successful content until you are spending as much time as possible with a piece of media that you probably had no intention of experiencing in the first place.
This is compounded further on social media platforms like TikTok, where children and adolescents are both the consumers and marketers of brands. A brand may work with a celebrity to publicize something such as the Doritos “#coolranchdance,” which attracted millions to be a part of the trend. Surprise, surprise… The central motive was not to create videos that bring people together and connect them through song and dance, although that is a nice thought. A company can’t survive on altruism. A company monetizes your attention by masquerading as your fun uncle.
I would never say that 100 percent of participants in this phenomenon are not enjoying this creative process and wasting their time sharing their expression with others. It is what comes after this process that brings up mixed feelings. Individuals will often spend an exorbitant amount of time trying to collect views/likes/follows and will constantly recheck their social media for days to weeks, as opposed to enjoying the time actually spent doing the “fun activity” or connecting with another person. Attention is being sold to the highest bidder, and young users are interacting with brands so frequently that they inadvertently assist companies in selling their product, which is not a coincidence; it is the marketing strategy. These young individuals are not being paid, and much of what they care about comes in the form of “follows” or “likes.” Many will happily supply this free labor to receive the validation they crave.
In Frontline’s “Generation Like,” a teen describes feeling “empowered” when they are retweeted, their content is shared, or when more people follow them. The attention they receive can suffice as a reward or currency (“Generation Like,” 2014). It is certainly the minority that will be able to gain enough followers and subsequently begin to generate their own monetary profit from their “fame” or attention given by others. This usually comes in the form of corporate sponsorship and guerilla marketing ads where an influencer will wear or use products in the content they create.
We often talk about the shortcomings of social media and its daily subscription fee, attention, but it is very easy to lose sight of how these Web sites are powered—by advertisements. It is often very difficult to discern when we are interacting with an ad, which further illustrates the far-reaching impact of these subtle algorithms. It is generally not enough to just acknowledge that this is happening and move on with your life because knowing this information exists does not make you immune to its effects (I am a shining example of this)! We can, however, be more proactive about our technology use to minimize the impact. It is worth supporting advocacy for digital marketing regulation, and, even at a local level, in your community, schools, and household, it is worth re-evaluating your screen use. Maybe it is also worth asking how many decisions and changes in your life have been the result of a fabricated rationale due to digital algorithms and how many decisions were of your own volition? With that said, how would you even know the difference?