Tailored ads are killing the informed consumer

Tailored ads are killing the informed consumer

Credit: Bloomberg

By Cathy O'Neil

In many ways, the tailored advertising that supports much of the internet works pretty well. It helps people with money figure out where to spend it with minimal effort and waste. But I’m afraid it could lead to the extinction a certain kind of human: the informed consumer.

The early internet was pretty useless for finding stuff. I’m an avid knitter, which is another way of saying that I collect yarn. I remember prospecting on the Alta Vista search engine in the mid-1990s, before Google: Most yarn stores didn’t have websites, and even finding discussions was hard. The best resource for yarn stores back then was an actual book called the MilePost Guide — which, on my Alaskan honeymoon in 1997, took me and my shockingly patient new husband to every purveyor reachable by car.

Fast forward to now. Whenever I browse online, I’m accosted by luxury sellers displaying sexy jewel-toned reams of yarn like NSFW porn. As much as I might struggle to ignore it, I am susceptible — as evidenced by all the impulse-buy inventory in my basement, in tones of burgundy, leaf green and turquoise. Yet I see and buy only certain types of yarn, produced by big companies with ample marketing budgets. It’s like strolling through an endless mall filled with national chain stores, every third of which is Yankee Candles.

Sure, with some effort I can seek out something different. I can go to conventions and specialized websites in search of rare, local brands. But I’m no longer as hungry for the yarn experience, in large part because it comes to me daily, sapping my volition. The overall experience is simultaneously convenient and lame, even as I feel utterly sated. I’ve gone from a passionate investigator to a passive consumer.

I recognize that my yarn experience is not among the world’s great issues. Yet the phenomenon applies elsewhere, too. Consider financial services. I’m in no hurry to revisit the sexist and racist lending practices of the 1950s. But as recently as the 1990s, I could and did visit several different banks to compare their offerings, which were pretty much standard for anyone who walked in the door. Now, if I go online, each bank will eyeball my credit and — while I’m busy streaming Derry Girls — push out some tailored products designed to extract the maximum profit from me. I can’t be an informed consumer, because I see only what they choose to show me. Instead of doing due diligence, I’m getting profiled and managed.

Another consequential example is the job market. As the economy recovers from the pandemic, people will be searching for work largely online. The main job sites — such as LinkedIn, Indeed and Monster — make money by finding the best matches between employer and candidate. This means the platforms will optimize by showing people the jobs that people like them have proven most likely to get, as opposed to the jobs they might actually want. Aside from the obvious risk of illegal discrimination. this will have the effect of limiting people’s ambitions, since they might never see the more highly paid positions that, although harder to get, might be within reach.

Again, I’m not saying it’s impossible to bypass the targeting. Savvy job seekers who push past the first few pages of listings might find that diamond in the rough. But I fear that by making things too easy, the age of automation might be allowing some of our most valuable skills to atrophy.

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