← Back to blog

Ad Liberation

Erik once again felt abused by the ad stream on his most used digital channels. He had the strange creepy feeling of being listened to on his conversations.

February 15, 2020
Kristoffer Kvam

Abuse

One day Erik was talking to a friend about his life long dream about going hiking in the Chilean mountains. The conversation was over lunch. It was something he hadn’t really talked or reflected on for a while and certainly not made any web searches for in years. Still, the dream awoke again as his friend mentioned cool travel destinations.

The next morning while browsing through the stream of two social media platforms he often used, his jaw dropped. First he got an ad about a special hiking gear package from a local sports chain called “The Adventurer” in the feed of one of them. “Why now” he thought, “it is winter and not really the season to buy summer hiking gear?” The second ad in the other channel was the one that made him freeze. It was an ad about a travel package to — yes you guessed it — Chile.

Erik got this familiar creepy feeling of being listened to on his conversation. Why could two different companies understand that he was dreaming of going hiking into Chile and offer their products to him? Could they tap into his phone? He mentioned this to a couple of colleagues at work, and they both had had similar experiences. One of his colleagues even said that he had planned to leave his social media channels, but he eventually decided not to because all his friends were there and didn’t want to lose out.

He had to do something about this. What he had experienced now was much more advanced than the stupid product promotion ads he often got on products he had browsed for before and then suddenly showed up while broswing other pages days later. That behaviour was just normal cookie based advertising — somebody had called it retargeting. He really hated that, but this time it felt personal, creepy and invasive. What was going on? His dream about Chile was not going to be broken by some creepy companies hacking his life.

Passing

Anna was tired. She was heading marketing in a mid-sized sports chain — The Adventurer — and the numbers were not looking good. Of 30 stores her company controlled, two had closed down this year and she was heading into a meeting about a closing a third store today. It was an easy call because the store had been losing money for a while, but still she knew it would be a hard decision. This was the first store opened by their company’s founder and had been protected because of its nostalgic value, but right now it was just too costly.

Still, she was a little excited. Anna and her head of digital advertising had just launched a series of “super targeted ads” that was seeing some positive traction. She paid extra for trying to reach the right customers on social media, but here you would get high conversions — guaranteed — due to finding people in the area with the exact right intents.

Investigation

Erik could not understand how the darn companies could listen to his conversations. He made some online searches — in anonymous mode from today and ever after — and found that the social media companies denied all allegations on listening to people’s conversations. Some other sites said it would not be technically possible without being discovered.

The revelation started to come to the open when he met his friend again that he had the first conversation with. He told Erik that he had been searching for some really cool stuff online at — yes you guessed it — the Adventurer and had already started planning a trip to Chile.

Erik called one of his “quant” friends that were working in financial analytics. He asked him what he thought was going on? “Well”, he said, “when we are doing credit scoring on people for loan approvals, the surest prediction is to look at who are your friends. If your friends are a criminal, you are much more likely to be a criminal”. “I think”, he continued, “that the friendship connection is what is being used here, if your friend is interested in hiking gear and Chilean trip, you are too”.

How could the travel company know about the friend connection? He had never been active at their web site and had never bought anything from them. He realized that the only place online that he and his friend had a connection was on a social media site it was presented with, so that was why the travel agency got the connection to Chile. Really sad he thought, and then he signed off the social media site for good.

Still, the ad about from the Adventurer was presented in a completely different anonymous channel. The social media site was clear it never sold data about friend connections and the ad he had been presented with was through another anonymous source where he has not logged in at all.

Underworld

The campaigns that Anna and her digital marketing head had created were doing great. The conversions — number of buyers per impressions — were significantly higher than before so they were definitely on track. Still, something was not right. They had used a marketing platform company — TurboTargeter — to place those ads. This company had in recent days attracted some attention because it used anonymous cookies to build probabilistic profiles of users. People felt fooled. Even though users where prompted for cookies on various sites, most people did not think that these cookies were used to create these profiles. The company then collected cookies on users — billions of these — and matched everything together into one common graph.

By matching with known customer sources in their partner network- Telcos, Media houses and such — they could create profiles that predicted who everyone was behind the cookies. The whole graph predicted what your interests were, your behaviour and who your friends were. For a marketer this was a dream because you now could reach everyone with very specific messages. When you matched this data with data from social networks, the targeting became truly creepy at finding people’s intents. As one of Anna’s colleagues said — this sounds more like an authority big brother state than anything else.

Anna was now really afraid that it would come out that The Adventurer had been using TurboTargeter in her campaigns.

Revelation

Erik had spent the night researching the field of digital advertising. Along the way he was a little surprised that ads online was now over 50% of all advertising in most markets. It grew by double digit numbers every year — this was the future. What he then discovered was really creepy. His naive opting in for use of cookies on sites he visited was most probably the cause of his distress. Companies where buying and selling data collected from cookies in a big market and thereby building massive customer profile bases they were using to target users. This was the reason!

These companies were most probably not doing anything directly illegal. After all, he had probably consented (just to get the pop up removed) to this use of the data in some pop up he had been shown on several sites. However, his naive behavior got a reality check when looking at absolute numbers.

In total almost 400 billion dollars was spent worldwide on the whole digital advertising yearly. That’s more than 85 dollars per every 4,5 billion internet user in the world per year. Erik felt that advertising was something that wasn’t wrong per se, but that so much money was earned on this creepy identity theft by so few companies — essentially on his data and presence online — and he as a consumer indirectly paying this whole bill was just completely insane!

Attack plan

He decided to attack the digital advertising industry head on — illegal or not — it just felt really terrible. Erik created a list of things he personally would do in the future

  1. Use ad blockers
  2. Use anonymous mode browsing to the largest extent possible
  3. Use a private search engine that didn’t track him
  4. Hide his IP-address by using a VPN (virtual private network)
  5. Use an email alias service when the recipient was someone he didn’t trust — like logging into a shopping site
  6. Delete the profiles on the sites he didn’t trust
  7. Opt out of most data use he did not get a direct benefit from on the sites he used.

But all this wasn’t enough. He felt he had to do something more to awaken others. It was simply unfair that companies he didn’t know was selling his, his friends and family and most others data without any of them knowing about this — and this data was then used to target them with stuff they were not asking for. And in the end he and his friends were paying for this — as the consumer.

After some investigation, a few companies were seen as the bad guys in this creepy advertising game. Lately, one company was under attack in his country because of very suspicious cookie data use — TurboTargeter. One site listed the advertisers that had lately used them and he finally found his nemesis on that list — the Adventurer. Now Erik knew exactly what he would do.

Liberation

Things had gone wrong. An activist group called «the ad liberation front» had struck the Adventurer and several other advertisers in her country for being “creepy brands”. The front figure — Erik McMaster — had been pushing his message over several information portals and had also got live TV airtime on some talk shows on his message. TV as an ad medium was dying being replaced by digital ads, so it was not very strange that the TV networks embraced his message.

Turbo Targeter valuation had been dropping like a stone on the stock market. Anna and The Adventurer had pulled their digital ad campaign activities and sales both in physical stores and online where dramatically down. Similar consequences were seen for all the other brands that the “ad liberation front”. People did not want to associate themselves with non-ethical brands that misused people’s data and privacy. The whole ad industry in her region was organised in this creepy advertising business so there were loads of advertising agencies and media companies that themselves were in a crisis. The activist group had implicated the front runners in this industry as well.

Anna and her whole team had then lost their jobs. The founder of the Adventurer had put the whole blame of the mistakes on her — publicly. This did not look good for her career. She wondered if she had to change her path and go away from marketing.

Then she got a call. It was Erik McMaster. He introduced himself, said he had heard about her sacking and was sorry that his work had turned to this for her. It was not personally his motives where, it was with the whole industry. Then he thanked her. Had it not been for the Adventurer had run the campaign that targeted him, he would never have learned about how this all worked. He would not have found his purpose in life. The final thing he said was the most surprising of all. It gave her an opening she was not expecting at all. He asked her a question :

“Would you like to cofound a business to change the whole ad industry to something that consumers trust and love, advertisers can directly control and where power is shifted away from the big global players”?

Anna smiled. She was now very curious.

Epilogue

This story describes in many ways how major parts of the advertising industry works today. The costs are spiralling out of control for advertisers, end users are distrusting and blocking ads, stores are dying, the industry is trying to invent increasingly better tricks to get the message through to fatigued consumers. Privacy laws have been strengthened in many countries to protect the consumer, but the root is that the ad industry today is organised around exploiting instead of serving the consumer. There are naturally good exceptions, but overall the business is built on “growth hacking” with metrics to maximise conversion.

I have had similar experiences both as a consumer and as an enabler on data and privacy for advertising. Based on this I found my own purpose and founded SMOC.AI. Our mission is to “Put an end to creepy advertising”. Our pledge is that we will create a better path where your attention is rewarded and your data is controlled by you.

https://smoc.ai

#anticreepyads #rewardattention

Reposted from Medium