There are medications that treat my ADHD symptoms, but these aren’t magic pills that can make me remember everything I’ve ever wanted to, so I tend to look for ways to work with these symptoms instead of against them. That’s where my little advertising trick comes in. I see an advertisement for a sustainable clothing brand pop up in my feed, I click on it to visit the site to ensure my interest is logged in the great database in the sky, and I trust I’ll be reminded of that brand the next time I open Instagram.
What Goes Around Comes Around
Eric Seufert, a marketing analyst at Mobile Dev Memo, tells me the tactic I’m taking advantage of is called “retargeting,” meaning that the ads I interact with will end up back in my social feeds because the companies serving these ads see that I’m interested in them. This is great for me, but more privacy-minded folks fear it’s indicative of a more insidious pattern of Big Tech following your every move. Seufert explains that no singular data set—meaning your personal information in this instance—is typically useful on its own.
The data used to target specific audiences is often aggregated into groups of people who are collated together based on corresponding clicks, browsing history, and location. After that group analysis, ads are delivered specifically to the targeted audience. The data used to create these pockets of people is either rooted in behavioral patterns (like what you tend to click on) or personally identifiable information (like your address).
Seufert compared tracking behavioral patterns to getting a receipt at the grocery store—you own the receipt, but the store also uses a copy of it for subsequent business decisions, like when and how often to restock an item you bought. For me, this retargeting helps me sift through the distracting noise of what I don’t want, and more often than not leads to an informed, thoughtful purchase instead of a rash, useless one.
My love affair with targeted ads came to fruition while planning my wedding. In case you didn’t know, there are a LOT of things you have to buy when preparing for an in-person wedding with 100-plus guests, from outfits for your bachelorette party to your rehearsal dinner dress and accessories for every event in between. For months, I searched for shoes. Wedding shoes are almost universally heinously styled or heinously expensive. I wasn’t particularly interested in what I found through my initial web searches, so I kept clicking through interesting ads in hopes of finding the perfect pair. I fed the tracking tools a constant stream of data about who I was and what I needed. Eventually, my Instagram ads clearly knew I was getting married. They then turned into my own personal shopper, providing me with targeted ads for brands I could not have found myself.
Alexandre Birman’s mid-tier shoe company, Schutz, waltzed its way into my Instagram ad feed, and my perfect wedding shoe found its way onto my feet. The shoes weren’t elaborate, but they were just right—a pair of simple, strappy gold sandals to perfectly complement the off-white, beaded dress of my dreams. I clicked on the ad for those shoes religiously so they wouldn’t get lost in my laundry list of wedding to-dos. Finally, I made my way to the brick-and-mortar store, tried the shoes on, and ordered them in plenty of time for the big day.
I’m sure folks, especially those with ADHD or other neurodivergent tendencies, have more fool-proof, established reminder systems. Handelman uses the app Evernote to collect his thoughts, for example. My method isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, but it’s in line with the guidance Handelman typically offers. Handelman often advises his patients to leave visual notes for themselves, like placing medications out in the open as a reminder to take them. Since I’m on social media more than I’d like to admit, targeted ads serve a similar purpose for me.
It is important to note that data brokers (companies that track your internet usage and sell or lease that information) sometimes indiscriminately share collected data with anyone willing to pay for it. Your behavioral profile could end up in the hands of law enforcement or bad actors, like stalkers. Joe Root, a data privacy advocate and cofounder of the advertising company Permutive, says it’s dangerous for companies to track your every move on the internet because “the scale of this tracking becomes very invasive.”