Ads invade our screens — and our private lives


More than a half-century ago, the social critic Vance Packard labeled the advertisers of his day “hidden persuaders.” What would he think of their descendants today?

Our social spaces are being encroached upon more than ever by advertising, even as doubts persist about whether it’s having any impact. A recent survey by the market research service AYTM found that more than 50% of Facebook users said they never noticed ads on the service, or considered those they did see not relevant to them.

Facebook’s reaction to such findings is to step up the proportion of commercial content in the messages received by its users, while concealing its true nature. The company is rolling out a product it calls “sponsored stories,” in which a user’s decision to “like” a company’s product will show up in his or her friends’ news feeds as an item placed by that company.


The idea, plainly, is to dress up an ad so it masquerades as a voluntary endorsement of a product between friends. If that sounds like an extreme encroachment of commercial interests into our personal lives, so be it: Facebook thinks it’s the key to attention-grabbing ads.

“Ads that are connected to the people around you are proving effective,” says Debra Aho Williamson, principal analyst at the research firm EMarketer. “But it’s not new to say that the things our friends like we are more likely to be interested in. Knowing that your friend is interested in something does have an effect on you.”

There’s little doubt that the ad industry is going through a shakeout as severe as anything facing newspapers, broadcasters and record labels, among other industries grappling with dramatic technological change.

Some indicators of the harsh realities facing marketers, especially online, have gotten wide publicity in recent weeks and days. The announcement of General Motors’ decision to pull all its paid advertising from Facebook because of doubts about its effectiveness, for example, coincided almost exactly with Facebook’s initial stock offering. Microsoft last week acknowledged defeat in the online ad market by writing down almost all of its acquisition of the Internet ad company AQuantive, for which it spent $6.3 billion in 2007.

Yet online ad revenue in the U.S. is expected to surpass print this year for the first time. That suggests that sponsors know they have to be online; they just don’t know yet what to do once they get there.

Advertising has always been intrusive to a degree, but it used to know its place. Television commercials were sequestered in discrete blocks of minutes within prime-time programs; newspaper and magazine ads were given their own pages or set off to the side or corner of a shared page; websites had banner or block ads that could be ignored at will. For marketers, that was the problem: People ignored them, paged past them, fast-forwarded through them.


The upshot has been the proliferation of ads that can’t be ignored. It’s a rare prime-time show that isn’t marred by a promotional animation constantly cavorting at the bottom of the screen. American newspapers have moved ads from their demure inside-page ghettos to the front page or even wrap-around enclosures. Marketing experts determined years ago that “customers actively avoid looking at online banner ads,” as Catherine Tucker of MIT and Avi Goldfarb of the University of Toronto observed in a scholarly study last year. So now ads take over your computer screen until you click to drive them off; ads play music or video at you, unbidden; floaters seem to follow your line of sight so you can’t peek around them.

To some extent, these efforts deserve our sympathy, even forbearance. The bargain we’ve made with content providers is that the cost of our newspapers, television programming and favorite websites will be subsidized by advertising. The more intent we are at ignoring it, the louder it will clamor for attention, as it should.

Yet a greater concern should be how much of this advertising depends on invading our privacy. Not very long ago, “targeted” advertising meant placing ads for ski equipment in Skiing Magazine, or commercials for toys on Saturday morning cartoon shows. (No one ever said targeters had to have scruples.) Today it means delving into individuals’ personal histories in an effort to home in on their hearts’ desires.

Tucker and Goldfarb found evidence that while consumers traditionally have been antsy about personally targeted ads on private topics such as finance and medical care, privacy concerns are spreading to other fields. No one should be surprised that the advertising industry would exploit every piece of information it can get its hands on to reach the individual. But Tucker says that even though marketers have more ability than ever to “force their way into a consumer’s attention, it does not mean that they should or that it will improve sales if they do. Instead, micro-targeting demands a more understated and informational approach than marketers have been used to.”

Does targeting even work? Some ads targeted at me have been laughably misaimed; others are just perverse. Over the better part of a year, for example, I could scarcely open a website without being confronted with an ad — sometimes multiple ads — for the weight loss outfit 1-800-GET-THIN. The targeting algorithm undoubtedly recognized that I regularly conducted online searches for that term, but must not have realized the reason: that I was writing regularly about the firm’s questionable professional record. If I could have thought of a way to communicate to the advertisers that I was about as far from their target market as they could get, I would have. But the online ads didn’t disappear from my computer until 1-800-GET-THIN’s ads disappeared from the freeways, the airwaves and the sides of buses, as seems to have happened.

Even those that hit closer to the mark often seem to be scarcely better than random guesses. Amazon’s website and advertisements have been pressing me to acquire a movie about Ayn Rand, whose works I stopped reading at the age of 15; the website says it thinks I’d like it because I once ordered a documentary about Circuit City stores. Search me what one has to do with the other.


Amazon says its recommendations improve when people share more information about themselves, but that doesn’t sound like a great trade-off. It reminds me of a friend who applied to see the FBI’s surveillance file on him from the 1950s; the agency said it would be happy to, if he would kindly verify his identity by informing it of everything he’d been up to in the intervening 30 years. (He decided to keep living in ignorance.)

One consequence of targeted advertising that hasn’t been well analyzed is how it contributes to the polarization of the community. In the same way that you can choose your news source based on whether it parrots back at you the political viewpoint you want to hear, an advertiser can narrowcast his pitch to just those segments of the public that are the best prospects. There’s no risk that he’ll be wasting money talking to people who just want to gawk but won’t buy. That’s the message of Orbitz’s practice of steering people who access its website with a Mac to pricier hotels than those using a PC, based on data showing that Mac users were more likely to book a higher-grade hotel.

Thus, the idea of life as a smorgasbord gets replaced by that of a landscape of individually wrapped gardens, each hermetically sealed against contamination by its neighbors. We’re all responsible for this trend, so no point blaming the advertising industry for making that happen. But as long as there’s money in it, they’re going to be more than delighted to depict that world as a new paradise.

Michael Hiltzik’s column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Reach him at, read past columns at, check out and follow @latimeshiltzik on Twitter.