Advertising That Exploits Our Deepest Insecurities

What are the implications of ads that know our search histories?

What people were searching for as I wrote this story. (Google Trends)

The function of advertising, wrote Robert E. Lane in The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies, “is to increase people’s dissatisfaction with any current state of affairs, to create wants, and to exploit the dissatisfactions of the present. Advertising must use dissatisfaction to achieve its purpose.”

The web browser is a dissatisfaction-seeking machine. Every search query we input reflects a desire—to have, to know, to find. Ordinarily, that fact may escape notice. But there are moments when the machine reveals its inhumanity.

Speaking on a panel at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is cohosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, Manoush Zomorodi, host of WNYC’s Note to Self, shared a story of a message she received from a listener who’d been following her series on digital privacy. “She was concerned that she might have a drinking problem, and so she went on Google and asked one of those questions, ‘How do you know if you have a drinking problem?’ Two hours later, she goes on Facebook, and she gets an ad for her local liquor store.

“And she left me a voicemail crying, ’cause she was like, ‘You know, it would be one thing if it were even sending me, like, clinics maybe where I could get help. But the fact that that’s how it was targeting me ...’ She felt so betrayed by Facebook, this company with whom she had a very intimate relationship.”

Only 9 percent of adults in the United States say “they feel they have ‘a lot’ of control over how much information is collected about them and how it is used,” according to the Pew Research Center. For most of us, unless we’ve expended the effort to limit the information we share, a vast network of automated snoops constantly monitors our behavior online, and tries to match ads to the fears and desires implicit in our searches and messages.

“You hear these little betrayals of privacy that actually are extremely powerful on a daily basis,” Zomorodi said.

Zomorodi’s co-panelist, the investigative journalist Julia Angwin, spoke about seeing middle-school students plagued by body-image insecurities. “Online, all they get is ads on how to lose weight,” Angwin said. “It preys on their fears. It’s just awful, right? And that is—I don’t know that it’s necessarily targeted advertising, because actually the entire internet is weight-loss ads, as far as I can tell.”

While Google effectively publicizes its aggregate search data—the annual compendium of the year’s queries is always a draw—the service’s value to advertisers comes from precisely the opposite type of data: the personal, strange, incredibly revealing things that each of us is looking for. In a recent episode of the Freakonomics podcast, Seth Stevens-Davidowitz, who wrote his dissertation on what people reveal in Google searches, spoke about how people expose a version of themselves to the search engine that they rarely present in surveys, or even in conversations with friends. “There are lots of bizarre questions—not just questions but statements—that people make on Google,” said Stephens-Davidowitz. “‘I’m sad’ or ‘I’m drunk’ or ‘I love my girlfriend’s boobs.’ Why are you telling Google that? It feels like a confessional window where people just type statements with no reason[able impression] that Google would be able to help.”

If our ad networks have become our confessors, what sort of penance will they extract? What latent or secret desires will they exploit? What could they prod us to do?