There was a fairly banal column over at the New York Times last Friday, complaining about being condescended to by a bank “customer service” rep.
“Did you want to add him to the account, or open a separate joint account?” she asked.
“We’ve talked about the options,” I said, giving my husband, James, my secret “not again” look, “but we’d just like to add him to this account.” I smiled pleasantly… “Are you sure?” she pressed on… I assured her that we had considered it and decided to stick to the original plan… She sat back a little in her chair and gave me a half-nurturing, half-scolding tilt of the head. “What would your mother say?”
I went on to read the comments, thinking there would be unanimous annoyance at the bank. Instead, there were an awful lot of people saying that the bank service rep was probably “right” and implying that being right was more important than respecting the customer.
I find this directly comparable to the claims by various boosters that they are doing consumers a service by placing relevant ads in front of them. The idea that someone else is determining what is right for you, based on incomplete knowledge about your situation and your decision process does not seem like an advantage for the consumer. It may sometimes result in a better match between consumers and products, true. But it will always impinge on the consumer’s autonomy. I think there needs to be some greater good than slightly better product matching to justify this as a net increase in welfare.
Clearly, if the people advocating the benefits to the consumer of ad targeting believed it, they would instead be advocating better tools to help the consumer choose, not a process that is best adapted to targeting the most persuadable, rather than the best fit.
There are advantages to ad targeting, for the advertiser certainly, and for certain media outlets, but not for the consumer.