The Surprising Impact of Online Advertising on Our Behavior

We’re all familiar with online advertising, but are we familiar with its effect on our behavior? While we may see it every day, whether we’re browsing the internet, using social media, or watching videos, are we aware of how it’s making us feel?

We may not like it, but most of us have come to accept online advertising as some sort of necessary evil. However, what if it isn’t just annoying, but harmful?

Let’s take a deeper look at this by beginning with a story about fruit.

Imagine you’re a fruit stand vendor.

You work hard all year to raise your crops and then sell them to the people living within the small town you call home. You make a good living and sell to people you know, who know you, as well.

Sure, maybe Mrs. Fortenberry is always trying to haggle over the price of a single apple, but overall, you have a good life. You take pride in what you’re doing and the role you play in your tight-knit community.

Then, a new Wal-Mart springs up in your town. People are excited; they’re seeing new products they’ve never had access to before. And everything’s so cheap!

With the high unemployment rate in your small town, there’s plenty of work to do, and this arrival is at first heralded as a godsend.

But, you’re nervous.

A big grocery store like that will likely run you out of business. However, they come to you with a proposition: sell to us.

This is great! You don’t have to haggle with Mrs. Fortenberry anymore and you can sell your produce in bulk all at once. Maybe a few rotten ones make it in, but Wal-Mart doesn’t seem to mind. You’re now more successful than ever.

However, one day, you realize you haven’t seen anyone around the farm for quite a while. Townsfolk no longer smile and wave at you at the grocery store, checking in to see how your latest crop is doing. This is because, now, you only grow apples.

This is all Wal-Mart wants you to do. You’re no longer the fruit stand vendor. You no longer feel that sense of community from before. You’ve now become yet another replaceable cog in the Wal-Mart machine.

It’s easy to see how someone slips into this kind of system; when we’re encouraged to do so every step of the way. Now, apples are an idea. You think much less about the fruit itself and more about the amount. It’s all flattened into a transaction; you know nobody, and nobody knows you.

In the world of online advertising, we’re all apples.

Advertisers care more now about numbers than people.

What advertisers want is your attention. But attention is hard to standardize; the attention you’re paying to read this article, for example, differs from the attention one might pay to their partner when spending time with them. Most of us have been on the internet long enough that banner ads now barely register; so, do our eyes skimming over a banner really count as attention? Perhaps that’s a question for another day.

What matters here is that we’ve become flattened into an algorithmic worldview; one where our attention is commodified and traded between companies who want to profit from our data. We’re no longer unique individuals with stories and experiences; most of us are just numbers on a spreadsheet.

So, why is this important?

Because it used to be different. Advertisers would reach out to websites directly to place advertisements relevant to the subject of the page. But this didn’t last long. Now, Google and Facebook comprise over half of all online advertising on the planet, with Amazon coming in at a distant third.

Advertising models that emulate these platforms can now be found across the whole Internet. We’re bombarded with hundreds of ads a day. Advertisers are fighting for each second of our attention. We’re no longer people looking for a product, we’ve been reduced to the idea of attention — amounting to nothing more than mere seconds of our eyeballs trained on pixels from a screen.

Online advertising is bought and sold in immense quantities. You don’t ultimately know who exactly you’re buying from, or who you’re selling to.

It’s a transaction of mere numbers on a page: clicks, impressions, engagement rate, relevance scores, and so on. You’re clamoring for those numbers to go up. If you’re an advertiser, how do you boost them?

There’s always the straightforward answer of simply spending more. But there are also now a lot of shortcuts you can take. You start promising more than you can deliver so that people will click. You could start expanding your ads to kids. You could narrow your focus so that you’re targeting a group that you’re sure will click. There are a lot of ways to make a number go up — many of them morally questionable.

Before you know it, you’re knowingly lying in all of your ads. You’re advertising e-cigarettes to kids. After all, children seven years old or younger can’t even tell when ads are manipulating them. You’re making sure the algorithmically sorted teenagers with eating disorders see your bikinis. You’re lightening your models’ skin. You’re doing all of this to make the number go up. You’re not thinking about people anymore. You’re thinking about those precious seconds of attention, those eyeballs, those numbers. You’re only really thinking about yourself.

When you don’t have to know who you’re selling to or what they’re doing, it’s all too easy to be callous.

You’ll overlook an ad company’s shady history in favor of its reach because everything has become so abstracted that you don’t think about what happens after. Because our attention is the commodity.

The unfortunate truth is that in today’s world, advertisers have become too fixated on numbers rather than people. This focus has caused them to adopt unethical advertising practices, such as manipulating customer behavior and exploiting personal data.

These morally wrong actions disregard our intrinsic worth as individuals, reducing us to nothing but a mere statistic in their marketing efforts. Companies must do better — our fellow humans deserve better. But, why haven’t we done something about this already?

Because we’re all too busy worrying about what we look like, what others may think of us, and how much fun others are having without us — by design.

The unfortunate reality of modern society is that we are increasingly being manipulated through targeted online advertising.

Subtle messages within these ads often focus on exploiting our insecurities and biases to persuade us to purchase certain products or services. Many of us may not even be aware that manipulation is occurring, making it all the more necessary to recognize the tactics advertisers use so that we can actively protect ourselves from exploitation. It’s time to arm ourselves with knowledge and be conscious consumers so that manipulation in advertising does not have the power to control us.

Social media is one of the most common platforms on which online advertisements are placed. Due to the nature of these ads, they often make it appear as though everyone else is having a wonderful time or enjoying certain products or activities that we long for but are unable to attain. This can create a false sense of connection and leave us feeling like we are missing out on something, leading to feelings of isolation and loneliness.

Online advertising still constantly reinforces unhealthy body images by showcasing unrealistic “perfect” bodies, endless amounts of dubious supplements, and bogus diets or treatments.

The effects of online advertisements on our self-esteem have been widely studied, with the conclusion being that the majority of ads feature unrealistic body types, which can have a negative impact on our mental health. These ads create an unattainable standard of beauty and success, which often leads to feelings of inadequacy or low self-worth.

People can be easily manipulated by online advertisements, which are often targeted to exploit insecurities and biases.

Advertisements manipulate you, and algorithms make it easy to do. We should be wary about our consumption habits and avoid supporting unethical companies. But advertisers need to be more mindful of these unethical practices too and avoid falling into the trap of using them.

Again, slipping into this mindset is easier than ever before, but when one considers people over data, then one can make more ethical choices and put out something worth trusting. In a world full of people taking shortcuts, ethics are a great selling point.

When we push back against being treated like data, we do several important things for ourselves. We assert our humanity. We value ourselves more. And we begin to understand that harmful advertising is all around us, thus gaining resilience to it.

Of course, nobody is immune to advertising. Perhaps we’ll still have our biases subtly influenced by beer advertisements, for example. We’re all human, and our brains take shortcuts. But when we stop and consider how we’re being manipulated, we can treat ourselves with a little more kindness. There’s nothing wrong with us, even when ads make us feel that way. When we know we’re valued as people, not data, then we can learn to take back our humanity, and grow together.

Both consumers and advertisers alike need to recognize the humanity behind their interactions with each other and take steps toward making more ethical decisions when it comes to advertising.

If there’s any hope for advertising at all, the flattening of humans into mere attention machines has to be abolished. When we treat people as nothing more than means to an end, we do them an injustice by not recognizing their humanity.

When we’re reduced to nothing more than numbers on a spreadsheet, then we’ve reduced our humanity accordingly. If we reframe these systems of programmed advertising as systems between people (and they are), we see that we’re treating each other as tools. By focusing on people, instead of farmed data, there’s hope that we may shift this paradigm.

By recognizing the humanity between the two parties, both consumers and advertisers can make more informed decisions that are beneficial for everyone involved. It’s worth taking note here too of how the decisions we each make affect those around us, regardless of whether we’re buying or selling.

Taking back our humanity means valuing ourselves more and recognizing that we should not be treated as mere data points on a spreadsheet, but instead seen as individuals who deserve respect.

Ultimately, it is up to us to recognize the manipulation in advertising and protect ourselves from exploitation. But, together, we can work towards healthier, more authentic interactions worldwide.

If you want to dive deeper into the hidden world of online advertising and how it affects our behavior, then watch or listen to our co-host conversation episode, A Conversation on Unethical Advertising, where we discuss the greater implications these practices have on the world at large.

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