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The ad spin

Rob Walker May 23, 2011
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Kai Ryssdal: The big television networks unveiled their fall schedules last week. Comedies are back, it seems, as are dramas in the 10 o’clock hour. There’s a little something else new as well: How the networks are planning to get even more ad revenue. Tie-ins between their shows and social media.

Advertisers will be able to follow you as you follow your favorite shows online, which got commentator Rob Walker thinking about the latest new-new thing.


Rob Walker: Creeped out or spooked by all the data about us that ad-supported web services collect? Marketers have a ready answer. This is good news, they assure us, because it means that we’re less likely to be subjected to the most annoying form of advertising — pitches for stuff we don’t care about. Detailed data mining means we’ll only get marketing messages that are, as they put it, “relevant.”

That’s pretty good spin, and some people definitely buy it. One 40-something father I know said he’d love it if he didn’t have to put up with shilling for Hannah Montana DVDs or arthritis-relief products or anything else he doesn’t consider “relevant.”

But here’s the problem. Micro-targeted advertising isn’t really about which products are relevant to consumers. It’s about which consumers are relevant to advertisers.

That’s different.

That 40-something dad, for example, happens to have a young daughter. And the managers of any given brand intended for preteen girls could easily conclude that reaching their parents is not a bad idea. And while he may not be in the market for arthritis relief now, makers of such products might find it advantageous to start making him aware of their brand.

Or suppose your online searches and clicks hint to marketing data-miners that you wish you could drop a few pounds. You might prefer not to be reminded of that fact by a slew of weight-loss pitches, but guess what? Those companies find you very “relevant!” So if they decide you need to hear more about diet pills, you will. And if you think about it, you could be just as attractive to makers of snack foods who figure you might be feeling a little peckish.

We’re really in the early days of learning just what advertisers will be able figure out about any given web surfer, but you can bet they’re craving all the data all they can get. At some point, being bombarded with super-targeted marketing may start to feel like living with an inescapable self-portrait in data — and we’ll yearn for the good old days, when ads were so irrelevant.


Ryssdal: Rob Walker is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. He’s also the author of the book, Buying In. Send us your targeted comments — click on contact.

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