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What advertisers are learning about you online

Molly Wood Jan 23, 2012

The number of Americans owning tablet computers and e-readers nearly doubled over the holiday season, according to a new report by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. “Certainly, the marketplace changed dramatically as new tablets came onto market at half the price and e-book prices dropped below a hundred dollars, said Lee Rainie, director of the center. 

Rates of ownership had previously held steady for tablets and readers for a while but Rainie says, “We’ve been doing survey work about adoption of technology for eleven years and we’ve never seen an increase over a one-month period that is this dramatic. It’s a huge shift in the way people are getting information and knowledge and working with these materials.

Also in today’s program, an interview with Joseph Turow, author of “The Daily You: How the Advertising Industry is Defining Your Identity and Your Worth.” It’s a new book about the digital trail you leave behind when you visit a site and what advertising companies are able to determine about you based on your activities.

Turow points to some very popular online destinations and says, “Facebook is scarfing up enormous amounts of material about you and putting it into little buckets, which it can share that with its advertisers or send you ads for its advertisers. The same is true with Google, and if you go to a newspaper site, chances are they’re picking up what you’re looking at and putting it into buckets.”

Those buckets, he says, are profiles. “They can be demographic, that is your age, your gender, geography, what kind of computer you have, do you look for baby carriages, for a car, hosiery, walking sticks, checked on vacation cruises, symphony sites, for diabetes medicine, how many times do you go on Twitter and talk about various issues.”

Turow says this kind of data mining and profiling isn’t just being used to sell you detergent, it’s used in political campaigns. As various GOP candidates try to land the nomination and as the presidential campaign looms, Turow says, “What we’re beginning to see is media companies connecting with political campaigns in such a way as to do what I’ve suggested consumer advertisers have already begun to do, that is to make judgments about people based  upon their activities online, and to make judgments that seem to be unrelated to politics, to connect them to political views, and then to send people selective ads based upon that.

“So for example, if I find that people who have certain cars are more inclined to believe a certain line of a political campaign, they might be sent to a particular link, whereas other people may be sent to other links, sometimes emphasizing very different aspects of that candidate’s background, so you may have very different notion of that candidate from somebody else because of ways that companies make inferences of you and the way you’re targeted.”

As a result, you might see one angle of a candidate and not another. Turow says, “You get more information that is resonant for you, not realizing that the reason that it’s resonant for you has come about as a result of certain kinds of ideas about who you are. These are inferences that are drawn about us that we have no clue how they come about and my point is that people should be able to have an understanding of how this works, should know where those data come from and should have a say in whether those data should be used about them.”

And in the end, you may be seeing a different candidate than someone else sees, all based on where you went online and the trail you left behind.

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