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I recently moved into my first apartment in Brooklyn, NY. As I’m sure you can imagine, my Google search history quickly became overwhelmed by searches such as “cheap couches,” “how to paint walls,” and “for how long can I survive on just rice and beans.” The Internet didn’t miss a beat. All of a sudden, the advertisements that popped up for me online all seemed to be related to inexpensive furniture, home goods, and other goods and services related to moving. Paranoia quickly set in. Who was watching me scroll through used couches for hours at a time? How did the Internet know my wants and needs to such a specific extent?!
There is actually an excellent explanation for why the advertisements I came across during my move seemed to be so specifically geared toward my personal needs. Due to behavioral targeting, they actually were.
But something else, something besides advantageous user and seller experience, happens when behavioral targeting is used. Studies conducted by the Ohio State University suggest that behavioral targeting has extensive psychological effects. (Summers, C. A., Smith, R. W., & Reczek, R. W. (2016). An Audience of One: Behaviorally Targeted Ads as Implied Social Labels. Journal of Consumer Research, ucw012.) When consumers recognize that the marketer has made an extrapolation about their individuality in order to serve them an ad, “the ad itself functions as an implied social label.” In more specific terms, when I saw advertisements for trendy, high end kitchen gadgets, I suddenly thought to myself, “Huh, I guess I am a pretty trendy person. It makes sense for me to have these.” It hadn’t occurred to me prior. But when the Internet served me the ads for very chic, designer oven mitts, you bet I immediately felt much hipper and furthermore much more likely to splurge on designer goods.
Researchers of this study account for this phenomena, stating that “behaviorally targeted ads lead consumers to make adjustments to their self-perceptions to match the implied label; these self-perceptions then impact behavior, including purchase intentions for the advertised product and other behaviors related to the implied label.” Are you thinking what I’m thinking? If you’re thinking that this study is making a case for why advertisements could actually be good for self-perception, then you are correct.