What Would Happen if Targeted Ads Were Banned?

Show of hands…

Who here enjoys getting all that targeted digital advertising every time you go on a device? Anybody?

Consumers have spoken, loudly and clearly, that the incessant targeting and retargeting is annoying at best, intrusive and disturbing at worst. And it plays into our suspicions that “they” know everything little thing about us – suspicions that have largely been justified as we all learn more about digital ad practices.

The solution, as posed by Basecamp’s cofounder David Heinemeier Hansson, doesn’t lie in tighter controls or more visible use policies. Hansson suggested to Congress earlier this year that the solution is to ban the practice of targeting digital ads.

“If companies couldn’t use our data to target ads, they would have no reason to gobble it up in the first place, and no opportunity to do mischief with it later,” writes Gilad Edelman in Wired in describing Hansson’s testimony before Congress. “From that fact flowed a straightforward fix: ‘Ban the right of companies to use personal data for advertising targeting.’”

Others have argued similar fixes, Edelman notes, including David Dayen writing in New Republic. The idea has support, in both academia and Silicon Valley.

“The thinking goes like this,” Edelman writes. “Google and Facebook, including their subsidiaries like Instagram and YouTube, make about 83 percent and 99 percent of their respective revenue from one thing: selling ads. It’s the same story with Twitter and other free sites and apps. More to the point, these companies are in the business of what’s called behavioral advertising, which allows companies to aim their marketing based on everything from users’ sexual orientations to their moods and menstrual cycles, as revealed by everything they do on their devices and every place they take them. “

What if companies simply had no place to sell this data anymore?

“It follows,” Edelman continues, “that most of the unsavory things the platforms do—boost inflammatory content, track our whereabouts, enable election manipulation, crush the news industry—stem from the goal of boosting ad revenues. Instead of trying to clean up all these messes one by one, the logic goes, why not just remove the underlying financial incentive?”

As of right now, the legitimate and massive digital ad industry is doing nothing “wrong” (digital fraudsters excepted, but that’s another story). Facebook and other platforms are collecting the data we willingly – if unwittingly – provide, and selling it over and over again.

“The market for such ads creates incredible demand for users’ attention on both the front and back ends: the more time you spend on Facebook, the more finely it can target you and the more ads you’ll see,” Edelman continues. “Combine that with the fact that users gravitate toward provocative content, and you can see where things might go. In the past, at least, sensation-seeking publications had to worry that sinking too far into the gutter would alienate their advertisers. Now the gutter is a money pit.”

So what if it did all go away?

Would advertising stop? No, but the ads you see might look very different.

“Many of the changes would be subtle. You could buy a pair of shoes on Amazon without Reebok ads following you for months,” Edelman explains. “Perhaps you’d see some listings that you didn’t see before, for jobs or real estate. That’s especially likely if you’re African-American, or a woman, or a member of another disadvantaged group. You might come to understand that microtargeting had supercharged advertisers’ ability to discriminate, even when they weren’t trying to.”

What do you think?

Should lawmakers consider this? Is it even feasible? The article takes a deep dive into this topic and is worth a read. It’s a fascinating idea to consider, as even now more than ever we are living our lives digitally in many ways.