Yes, Big Brother is watching you

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Are targeted ads intrusive?

coca-colaIf you live in a ninth floor apartment with no balcony, the chances are that your mailbox never features gardening catalogues. But if you’ve had a baby recently, the chances are that you’ll get mail – both paper and email – advertising baby products and services.

That’s simple good sense. Why waste the planet’s resources sending ladies’ footwear catalogues to an eighty year old man? Or automotive accessory offers to someone who has never owned a car?

You’re never going to receive mail about luxury goods if you live in certain zip codes – advertisers just don’t waste their time and money – and that’s a good thing,isn’t it?

But people get suspicious when targeted advertising is served to them via technology – probably because it seems too much like an invasion of privacy. But is it really?

Let’s imagine that you have written a book and it’s sold on Amazon. Someone, let’s call him Tom, has been looking at your book but he didn’t buy. The chances are that at sometime in the next few days, Tom will be visiting a totally unrelated website and your book will show up as an ad there.

Tom might think’oh,I saw that on Amazon. I should have ordered it. I’ll order it now.’ If you’re the author of the book, and Tom duly places his order,then that’s a wonderful thing. But he might not see it that way. He might see it as an invasion of his privacy because ‘big brother’ has been logging his viewing habits. Is that really any worse than the fact that Tom receives soliciting letters from lawyers because he’s jut been ticketed for a motoring offence? (Something that’s been going on for years).

Some people blame ‘online’ – those terrible computers – but technology is everywhere.

Had you been walking down a London street in 2012, you might have seen a bus-stop billboard showing a short video about a campaign to educate girls in developing countries. That is, you would have seen it if you were female. This was thanks to gender-recognition software within the billboard itself. If you happened to be male,you would have seen something completely different. You’re not online – you’re simply waiting for a bus, but technology has determined which ad you see. This seems sensible – why show ads for women’s clothes to men and vice versa?

When I enter America from another country, technology scans my fingerprints and my eyeballs. Now, that’s  good thing too. Closed circuit TVs are everywhere too – hopefully keeping us safe from terrorism and crime. (A couple of years ago, it was estimated that there were 4 million and 5.9 million CCTVs in the UK).

Some street ads use a system called Lenticular printing. This means that the advert looks different depending on the angle from which you are viewing it. For example, one advertiser calculated the average height of a ten year old child. Anyone viewing it from that height, saw an ad focused towards children – taller people saw something different.

An Italian company developed mannequins that contain micro-cameras that identify the gender, approximate age and ethnicity of shoppers nearby.  Another makes facial recognition software that recognises VIP clients when they enter a store or restaurant. Your purchasing habits are tracked by your credit card or store card. Major stores can pick up data from customers’ cellphones to monitor their movements throughout the store. Often, this is sold to brands. Let’s imagine that a department store sold a luxury cosmetic brand targeted at young women.. If its various softwares demonstrated that women of that age group were looking at the cosmetics – but not buying – this data can be sold by the store the company who might conclude that their products attract, but they are too expensive.

In many, many ways, we are being watched and our data is being collected, whether or not we use a computer or phone. Do you have an exercise machine (or use one) that transmits information? If you use fitness monitor, can the company sell the data to your health insurance provider? (A recent survey found that thirteen fitness apps sold users’ data –  including their email addresses – to seventy six other companies.

Can we do anything about it? Probably not. Companies will monitor us,define us and target us – they always have. Now, they’re just much better at it. All we can do is hope that it is mostly benign.






Jackie Jackson, also known online as BritFlorida, is a highly experienced designer and writer. British born and now living in the USA, she specialises in lifestyle issues, design and quirky stories. You can see a wide range of articles here, or visit her website Tastes Magazine. See The Writer’s Door for more information.

Author: Jackie Jackson

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