Technology is Tuning in on the Conversations of our Lives to Create Personalized Ads

By Olivia Cerci

I stood with my roommate, Natalie, in the gift shop of Trident Booksellers and Cafe, a trendy lunch spot in Boston, to quickly browse after our meal. After perusing through racks of animated socks, rows of oddly scented candles, and a few novelty board games, I picked up a book of pre-made postcards, and inquired if they were actually sendable or simply showy. Natalie responded with a clarification on the use of postage stamps. 

“Really anything could be mailed,” she quipped “it would be possible to mail a potato as long as it had enough stamps on it.”

Laughing it off, I appreciated her legitimate clarification and an extra dose of humor. This conversation did not reoccur to me until the following morning when scrolling through Instagram and this ad popped up:

(Not a Live Ad)

Intriguing. Confusing. Odd. Eerie. 

Those are some words to describe the image, weirdly reflective of a conversation I had less than 24 hours earlier.  This scenario piqued my curiosity as to the factors that contribute to the messages on our screens. It seemed like someone or something was watching, listening, monitoring. It is a phenomenon that does not seem to be isolated. The trend of personalized advertising has rocketed over recent years.

How Do Personalized Ads Work?

En Veritas Group has researched that most personalized advertisements are a result of retargeting and remarketing. Cookies that target user interests as they travel from site to site are largely influential in this process. Information obtained through search and shopping history, combined with demographic data, is largely indicative of the advertisements that will appear. EVG also notes that online habits, geographic location, and seasonality are large controlling factors of promotion.

Pros and Cons of Personalized Ads

Detailed targeting based on consumer interests is able to save large amounts of money for businesses. Emarketer has noted that relevant ads increase consumer engagement, and demand for personalized content is at an all-time high. Subsequently, focusing promotions on specific consumer groups causes greater product sales than widespread advertisements. A 2019 survey discovered that 98 percent of marketers agree that personalized ads lead to a measurable lift in engagement. Undoubtedly, with the amount of media on social networks, companies must embrace a personal niche to obtain audience attention. 


Michael Griffin, CEO of Adlucent, disclosed to Marketing Dive that “as brands continue to battle for consumer dollars, it’s clear that the way to win is through personalization. Consumers expect content that is both useful and contextually relevant ―the right information served at the right time.”


Convenience Is Key

However, the benefits of personalized ads are not just limited to those doing the marketing. Personalization seems to provide more convenience for those who receive the advertisements. In fact, an Adobe study showed that a whopping 42% of their respondents are annoyed when their content isn’t personalized. Surprisingly, it seems that not having personalized ads can actually be detrimental. An Infogroup survey reported by MultiChannel Merchant notes that 90 percent of consumers say that messages from companies that are not personally relevant to them are “annoying.” Additionally, 70 percent of consumers say they would pay more attention to personalized products. 

Consequently, as the trend in personalized advertising continues to skyrocket, data gathering will only continue to enter more intimate levels. Users enjoy seeing products that are interest-relevant and align with their needs, but at what expense?

Privacy, Please?

Those who have yet to consider the wealth of information that is picked up in the wake of our online activity would be surprised at the extent (and craftiness) of it. EVG notes that Google has full accessibility to items in our calendars, emails, searches, and location. Pew Research Group concurs that Facebook ads are a combination of relationship status, employer, job title, education, and interest list. A shocking 74 percent of users were unaware that this interest list existed. Google accounts and Instagram (owned by Facebook) compile similar interest lists for their platform users. Learn how to access the Instagram user interest list here. 

Furthermore, a Marketing Dive news study says today’s data providers can receive information from almost every imaginable part of your life: internet activity, places visited, likes and dislikes, friends, and the activity and preferences of friends. Some articles have claimed that apps like Facebook and Instagram have algorithms that will monitor who you are with, and show you ads based on shared interests with your present companions. 

Ethics of Intrusion

Tracking seems to make many Facebook and Instagram users uncomfortable. Despite the general discomfort,  Forbes has reported that only 17 percent of consumers believe that personalized ads overall are ethical. Additionally, Digital Information World provided some statistics about specific consumer responses to ad targeting. Their work reports that 67.9 percent of users believe product recommendations based on search history are ethical. However, this dropped to a meager 21 percent believing that it was ethical for ads to be provided based on a recently discussed (verbally or over messaging platform) item. 

Many major media platform’s denials of listening to conversations of app users have not been totally convincing. According to this same study, 59.6 percent of people believe that their phone or laptop is actively listening to them. Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, has stated during interviews that these ‘freak matchings’ of advertisements to conversations is a result of blind luck or previous related website activity, rather than any kind of malicious listening. 

Lurking and Listing is Listening

While these big-brand companies have denied their actual tuning into our conversations through microphones, they certainly seem to be listening in other ways. By using personal information in the science of habit formation, these companies seem to know more about ourselves than we do. The extent of the information database is enough that companies don’t even have to listen to advertise to you, they just know that much already. So, the question for consumers is how much is too much?

Users Aren’t Totally Convinced

Rec many users on social media shared Instagram’s interest lists and ridiculed the app for not being quite right as to their preferences. For this reason, many users believe that the app has far more sources to direct ads that seem eerily accurate. What else could they be? 

However, I never searched for anything related to mailing potatoes.