We believe it’s one of the best documented and most relevant studies of recent years: “The billion dollar business of surveillance advertising to kids” by the New Economics Foundation. The New Economics Foundation or NEF is a British think-tank that aims to design a new model and indicators for prosperity based on equality, diversity and stability. Their latest report reads like a thriller and really captivates your attention every page you turn. Children are the focus of their research, but the study is full of general information about online advertising, which makes the entire publication a gem.
The context is clear: in 25 years, online advertising has developed from a niche to the lifeblood of a number of tech companies. Alphabet (the parent company of Google and YouTube, among others) derives 84% of its income (135 billion USD in 2020) from online advertising. For Facebook, that’s even 98.5%, or roughly USD 70 billion in 2020. “Surveillance advertising”, which is targeted advertising based on personal data provided by websites and platforms, has been around for a good 10 years and has now become the main source of income for big tech.
But how ‘healthy’ is surveillance advertising?
Proponents shout that the Internet can only be free because of this form of advertising. After all, it helps to pay publishers for delivering their content.
However, it is clear that serious questions arise about how information is acquired and used to feed auction networks. Fake publishers can compete in ad auctions because surveillance advertising focuses on individuals and not, for example, on locations. Agencies buy premium websites just long enough to track their target audience. And when they have enough data to do that, they can switch and use the information they have to place ads on cheaper sites. Whether the sites can then be trusted is irrelevant. The most striking example in recent months came to light in an investigation by www.newsguardtech.com which showed that 4,000 brands (!) had advertised on websites that proclaimed all kinds of COVID fantasies. 4,000…including Pfizer… painful.
And surveillance advertising does not provide any added value for you as an advertiser either. PriceWaterhouseCooper showed that 49% of your online money remains with intermediaries while you are also misled by Facebook and LinkedIn using false metrics that inflate the impact of your campaign (adage.com).
Children are hit twice as hard, according to the study. Of course they are more vulnerable, but surveillance advertising increases that vulnerability. Children are more sensitive to the pressure of advertising, recognise almost no paid content and certainly do not see how their personal data are used or abused. By the time a child reaches the age of 13, the tech industry has already collected an average of 72 million data points per child. Madness!
What should we do with this?
The first results of the Apple update which asked whether you still want to be tracked, show that 96% of users indicated that they no longer want this. A deliberate choice in favour of being tracked (‘opt-in’) must be made compulsory. Data that is not acquired in this way must be deleted, under penalty of severe sanctions. Global legislation to that effect must be written that applies to every continent.
Those in favour of surveillance advertising will argue that this could mean the end of the free Internet. But in the words of marketing guru Bob Hoffman: “Is advertising essential to a free web? Yes. Is tracking? No!”