Programmatic Ads Gone Wrong

Targeted advertising can be both useless, and traumatic.

Jess Thoms
Jan 20 · 3 min read
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Photo by Kate Trysh on Unsplash

My eldest sister’s newsfeed tells a strange story.

Based on her targeted advertising she is a erotic story loving pregnant woman with toe fungus. Her most recent targeted ad? An erotic tale: ‘The Billionaire’s Surrogate: A Pregnancy Romance.’ She swears it’s not targeted based on her Google searches.

I believe her, considering her ads this month included the following: livestock ear clippers, car mufflers, pregnancy vitamins, Coronation Street recaps, and jockstraps. She’s a childless accountant who only watches Netflix.

So, the algorithm is not working at its best.

Ads never used to bother me. I easily ignored the stream of random products and services targeted towards me on the internet. Then I turned twenty-five. The change was almost immediate. The most common ad I see now is for Clearblue pregnancy tests. I thought it was a fluke, but the baby related content hasn’t stopped — only increased. My demographic data has signalled to advertisers that I should be procreating. I’m ripe and ready.

And it’s not just me, in a Vox article last year an interviewee cited the exact same experience as soon as she hit twenty-five.

My middle sister, who recently gave birth, had a similar experience.

“I get breast pump ads,” she tells me. “And one for a postpartum cleansing wash bottle.”

My middle sister wants to scroll Facebook in the brief moments she gets to unwind, only to be reminded of her brutal delivery, her sleepless nights, and the pressure to breastfeed by cookies who have followed her around the internet. It’s chilling how quickly our newsfeeds turn into a personalised reflection of our lives, when sometimes we just want to escape.

For many, a change in circumstance means coming to grip with a new identity, and the rapid change in advertising can be jarring.

Advertisements are broken. Instead of sparking joy, wonder, and inspiration to buy things we didn’t know we wanted, many ad strategies have morphed into chilling reminders of the things we cannot have.

A horrific example is this Washington Post writer who’s baby was tragically stillborn. Of course, the algorithms knew she was pregnant, it was consistently shared and the writer admits to have clicked on maternity ads.

In her letter to tech companies she highlights that even after selecting ‘This ad isn’t relevant to me’, platforms assume the user has given birth, with a happy result.

She calls for a correction by the tech companies, so the onus doesn’t fall on the user, or advertiser.

On a lighter note, the useless ads abound for products you literally bought a minute ago, which advertisers will continue to encourage you to buy for two weeks afterwards.

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Delia Cai on Twitter

Like yeah, I have seen this new scented candle, it’s in my house.

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