Steven Spielberg’s 2002 science fiction noir film Minority Report depicted the future of advertising as individually targeted to meet a specific consumer’s needs; as of 2019 this prediction has become a reality. Our cellphones and computers send us ads targeted specifically at us based on our search histories and what we talk about through email and social media – some believe they’re receiving ads for products they’ve only thought about. But is targeted advertising really all that bad, or more invasive than other forms of advertising?
The ethics of marketing have been questionable for centuries, and advertisers continue to use methods coined by the philosopher Aristotle. Ethos, logos, and pathos are persuasion techniques used by anyone with something to sell.
Ethos, from which the word “ethics” is derived, is used to persuade consumers into trusting the authenticity and/or credibility of the product, as well as the brand selling the product. Logos appeals to logic by constructing fact-based arguments; this mode of persuasion appeals to common sense, but the “facts” are often false or manipulated. Pathos works by appealing to emotions – the word “empathy” comes from pathos. Commercials that tug on your heart-strings (think anything with cute animals or young children) use pathos to sell to you.
In more recent decades, advertising has used these tactics to sell everything from makeup, hygiene, and cleaning products to cars, food, and clothes. Though it was set decades in the past, the hit TV series Mad Men gave a look inside the mind of advertisers and showed that advertising isn’t something that just anyone can be successful at. When it comes to what makes people spend money on certain items, there’s a formula at work.
Despite all the science and study that goes into a modern advertising campaign, it isn’t always successful. Pepsi’s 2017 ad featuring Kendall Jenner was met with harsh backlash after appearing to trivialize socio-political protests going on at the time. Audiences are becoming smarter and more critical of media, and only the companies smart enough to keep up will survive. Consumers aren’t just more aware, but their focus has shifted from television and newspapers, where ads once thrived, to the internet and social media, where most users will do anything, to get away from them, including installing apps and specific programs just to block them. This is where targeted and subliminal advertising comes into play.
This newer type of advertising comes in the form of product placement, slyly sponsored tweets, click-bait articles on sites like Buzzfeed, etc. Companies pay to ensure that their content trends, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to spot the difference between organic popularity and paid popularity.
It may seem deceptive or even sinister, but it’s not all bad. Ads that appear on your social media timelines and feeds that are based on your own specific interests are more effective at selling, but that’s because you’re being sold exactly what you want. It can be odd to have a conversation about Big Macs on Facebook and suddenly see an ad for a McDonald’s coupon in your feed, but you did want that Big Mac.
Advertisers benefit by selling to customers who actively want their products, and customers benefit by getting what they want faster – and easier – than ever before. Spielberg, along with many viewers, may have seen this sort of hyper-targeted, personalized advertising as short-hand for an invasive, dystopian future back in 2002, but as attitudes shift and technology advances, it’s increasingly becoming our modern reality. And many consumers don’t seem to mind.
Jasmine Cormier | Contributing Writer