Scams upon scams: The data-driven advertising grift

Digital advertising is a scam from top to bottom. In fact, it’s several scams stacked on top of each other, wearing a trenchcoat, and some of the foundations of fibs are so effective that otherwise reasonable people entirely buy into them.

Data-driven ads are anything but

I’ll start with a few examples of the data which is definitely held on me, and just how entirely bad my targeted advertising is.

Facebook know my age and date of birth. They have had this data since I signed up for the website, 15 years ago. They know exactly how old I am. They also know where I live. Hell, sometimes I used to check into places with my location on. Despite knowing I am way north of 30 and way south of Birmingham, they are incredibly keen on advertising me events explicitly limited to people under the age of 30 in the Birmingham area.

Google knew I wanted to buy a mattress. They knew this because I googled it. And I clicked through to a brand selling mattresses, and I bought myself a mattress. The brand know I googled said mattress. Google know I clicked through. From Google’s own analytics, they ought to know I bought the mattress. Since buying that mattress, I’ve been constantly advertised mattresses, especially the one I already own and they know I already own.

Some might claim that in fact the advertisers are being incredibly smart and they’re advertising me activities for women under 30 in Birmingham so I go and tell my friends who are under 30 in Birmingham to go and do that. But of course, Facebook would also know that I don’t have any friends in that demographic. Or maybe that mattress seller is trying to tell me to refer a friend to buy that mattress by reminding me that I own a very nice mattress. In which case, why isn’t it advertising the referral programme, which I know they have because I received several emails and a physical leaflet about it with the fucking mattress?

The more simple answer is that the advertisers aren’t being data driven at all. They’re ticking default boxes or casting wider nets. I’m getting advertised mattresses because I have ~an interest in mattresses~. I’m getting activities for women under 30 in Birmingham because I’m under 40 and on the same island as Birmingham.

For all the buzzwords about “data-driven” and “smart” and whatever else you want to call it, the advertisers are just going “eh, sounds about right” and letting a robot automate their job.

This, then, is the first grift in the chain. Despite claiming to their boss that they’re using “data-driven” advertising, they’re targeting their ads even less than taking out a quarter page in the local newspaper.

The product: they could spy on you (but don’t)

Everyone is rightly nervy about the sheer quantity of data that big companies hold on us. Social media companies know all about your demographic information, social connections and interests. Amazon knows exactly when you have an outbreak of aphids because you buy things to kill the nasty little beasties, and it probably also knows when you’ve had a nasty breakup because nobody listens to Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours on repeat at 3am when they’re in a good place. Google basically knows everything about you.

At least that’s the theory. And that’s the product that they’re selling to advertisers. They have an enormous dataset from which everything an advertiser could ever dream of about a person can be garnered. They’re the world’s biggest, bestest spy network, which means they have quality data to help your business be the biggest, bestest business reaching the biggest, bestest customers.

At least that’s what they say.

Actual spying requires actual spies. There’s a reason intelligence agencies are such big employers: they have all of their fancy spy computers, but they know they need to hire humans to actually deduce patterns and sort signal from noise. They’re aware that a human brain is always superior to a computer in figuring this out, so they get humans to do the work.

Meanwhile, tech companies break into hives at the thought of getting a human to do a job. Their ethos is that if a human can do a task, a machine can do that task better, and not cost them anything such as salary, pensions or or a basic level of respect. Tech companies are fatally allergic to getting a human to do a human job, so content moderation is largely an algorithm looking for the word “boobies”. A tech company would go into anaphylactic shock at the very notion of employing a human to analyse their vast dataset.

So it’s all machine learning, and the machines are very, very stupid. Have you ever looked at your list inferred interests on a social media platform? If you ever tweeted “I don’t like Game of Thrones, it’s not for me,” you’ll be classified as interested in Game of Thrones and possibly get served ads for it. These machines may also attempt to deduce your age, gender, and so forth based on half-baked crap fed into them, and it seldom comes up right. Maybe that’s why it thinks I’m under 30 and in Birmingham. Perhaps I internet in a Brummie accent.

It’s no wonder that on multiple occasions, big tech has been caught out completely making things up when communicating with advertisers, and they continue to do so. Facebook was famously found to have inflated or outright fabricated video metrics. GA4 very quietly admits that the data is padded out with machine learning. The data is a lie, and a lot of it is because they literally haven’t the first clue on what to do with it, they just need to steeple their fingers and act all evil so advertisers think they have it.

Advertisers, then, are getting served a steaming turd on a plate rather than the medium-rare filet mignon they were promised.

And meanwhile, the spies don’t even need that data, because your posts are public anyway.

But enough about that. The problem is this grift is, too, built upon a grift.

Marketing science is a grift

I work in marketing, for my sins. This is mostly why I’m so entirely down on the marketing industry and many of the people who work in it. I also happen to have an MSc in psychology – actual psychology! – with a focus on behaviour change.

On day 1 of your class about behaviour change in a science course, you learn that behaviour change is not a simple matter of information in, behaviour out. Human behaviour, and changing it, is big and complex.

Meanwhile, on your marketing courses, which I have had the misfortune to attend, the model of changing behaviour is pretty much this: information in, behaviour out.

The thing with the entire “science” of marketing is the underpinning theory base is basic common sense which has been treated with a bit of a brand makeover, turned into a couple of overcomplicated diagrams with some neologisms obscuring meaning. Digital marketing has become very popular because baked into it are a whole bunch of metrics so you have something to show your manager that you’re not spending the entire day tending your geraniums, but do the metrics really mean anything?

The metrics that marketers are told they need are marketed to them by the marketing department of a company that specialises in making products for marketers. And that company was probably started up by someone who worked in marketing.

Marketing theory is never tested rigorously. The common sense incredibly sound scientific view based on heaps of scientific evidence view – showing your ads to people more likely to buy your product is more efficient because they’re more likely to buy your product anyway – is entirely untested.

There’s an anecdote that a glitch with Facebook led to ads no longer being targeted over a period of several weeks. And absolutely nobody noticed because the metrics all looked normal, the engagement and purchasing was just the same.

There isn’t any evidence to suggest that an ad targeted to 35 year old men with children with an interest in football is any more likely to result in sales of Football Dad socks than a poster for Football Dad socks at a bus stop. But an entire industry is based on pretending that this is the case.

tl;dr

Facebook will try to sell you Football Dad socks even if you’re a 55 year old childfree woman who posted once about hating football, because that data is utterly useless.

Spies are probably reading your posts though, no matter how boring.

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