Most of the time, targeted ads are pretty harmless. You searched for a flight to Denver? Here are some hotels in Denver. You looked for new running sneakers? Here are a few options.
But a new "study" from marketing firm PHD recommends a strategy that crosses the line from merely targeted to outright predatory, explicitly advising brands to seize on the times of the day and week when women feel the most insecure about their bodies and overall appearance in order to sell beauty products and other goods.
Women, the study claims to have found, feel less attractive on Mondays, especially in the morning. Thus, as the release explains, "Monday becomes the day to encourage the beauty product consumer to get going and feel beautiful again, so marketing messages should focus on feeling smart, instant beauty/fashion fixes, and getting things planned and done. Concentrate media during prime vulnerability moments, aligning with content involving tips and tricks, instant beauty rescues, dressing for the success, getting organized for the week and empowering stories." Yuck.
To go along with this approach, labeled the "encourage" strategy*, marketers should deploy a complementary "empower" phase on Thursdays, when women are supposedly feeling their best. "Thursday offers prime opportunities for marketing messages and in-store/promotional activity around celebrating best beauty looks, dressing for the weekend, and shopping get-togethers," the study cheerfully advises.
And, if timing ads for the time of the week when women in general are feeling kind of meh about themselves isn't gross enough, the study hints at an even more cynical possibility: Women can feel bad about themselves at any time! Particularly, the study finds, when they are stressed, sick, or crying. Good news: This means there are great opportunities for brands all week long—if only they could know when a woman is stressed, sick, or crying, perhaps as evidenced by the texts of their chats and emails. We can all look forward to this happy day.
An infographic from Adweek (used with permission) provides a good summary of the "findings":
Is this a parody? Sadly, it doesn't seem so.
Rather, it is an unfortunately perfect example of the troubling possibilities enabled by online data tracking—not an abstract sensation of "creepiness" but an ability to exploit people's vulnerabilities for the sake of profit.
This is the argument of University of Washington law professor Ryan Calo. As he put it in a recent paper:
The digitization of commerce dramatically alters the capacity of firms to influence consumers at a personal level. A specific set of emerging technologies and techniques will empower corporations to discover and exploit the limits of each, individual consumer's ability to pursue his or her own self-interest. Firms will increasingly be able to trigger irrationality or vulnerability in consumers -- leading to actual and perceived harms that challenge the limits of consumer protection law, but which regulators can scarcely ignore.
Targeting women at their most insecure seems to hit the nail on the head.
Of course, any ad worth its salt is targeted (e.g. beauty products in women's magazines, car ads in the auto section), but Calo argues that the sort of targeting enabled by the Internet is categorically different. "Advertisers can only reach people at their most vulnerable if they can reach them practically anytime," he explained to me over email. For most of us, the Internet allows that opportunity, and even when we're not at a computer, we tend to have our phones with us. "The woman who (apparently, research suggests) feels bad about herself in the morning," he writes, "can receive a text right then and there from a company offering a 'beauty' product."
On the bright side, by the time Thursday rolls around, she'll be getting a bunch of empowering texts about great going-out attire. Hooray.