Cue cute drooling babies, gurgling along vaguely to the tune of ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’, and a direct question to the viewer, ‘Are you trying for a baby?’ An advert I’m getting quite familiar with, and quite sick of, to be frank, for digital ovulation tests. As it happens, I’m not trying for a baby. I simply want to watch a video about cats. This ad is relentlessly broadcast to me whenever I watch anything online.
And it’s not like it’s this ad sometimes, and others at other times. I can’t remember the last time I was shown a different ad as the inevitable prelude to an online video. Except for a few months ago when I was faced with endless cycles of a similarly vomit-inducing digital pregnancy test ad from the same company. I don’t know what the Internet knows about me, but it probably knows I’m a woman in my early thirties and I can only assume it’s these factors that result in this unwelcome bombardment of babbling infants.
But it doesn’t stop there. Since this particular advert got my back up, I’ve taken more notice of the targeted advertising that I receive more generally. Over the past month, the adverts I’ve seen include: chocolate, cake décor, laundry detergent, cleaning products, vacuum cleaners, wedding photography, children’s toys, baby formula, and – best of all – ‘sleep tips for new parents’ from a high street life insurance company. How kind of them.
If I look at this list and think about the ‘profile’ these organisations have built up of me, it’s a worryingly backwards one. While the chocolate is fair enough (although I am dubious as to whether they promote to males of the same age) it appears to me that my profile is that of a mother (or aspiring mother) who should be married, or at least thinking about getting married, who bakes cakes, cleans the bathroom, does laundry and enjoys vacuuming.
Is it just me, or does this sound like we’ve gone back 50 years? Promoting these products specifically to women in their thirties appears to be reinforcing outdated social stereotypes that our generation assumed had been committed period dramas and ironic Ladybird books. Aside from the simmering rage this realisation stirred up, it also – in the back of my mind – got me wondering, should I be thinking about having a baby? I don’t think I want one right now, but why not? I probably should want one. Everyone else I know does. And now my news feed is pretty much telling me it’s imperative that I do!
While it’s obvious I’ll never be one to get satisfaction from baking or laundry, the baby thing did for a brief moment at least, get me questioning my decisions. Has personalised advertising replaced nagging grannies and broody friends in asking the cringeworthy and dreaded question, ‘so, are you next dear?’ For me (and it seems, lots of other women – check out the comments on this video) this whole thing is annoying and slightly perturbing, but there’s no harm done, I guess. Unless I end up pregnant precisely because those bundles of joy were so damn persuasive.
But what if it were to cause harm? What if I was struggling to conceive, or had lost a baby? Beyond the obvious question of exactly how companies compile their secretive algorithms and profile us, the more worrying question is, while they aim to present us with products that mirror our interests and lifestyle, what if instead, they are moulding our lifestyles, our motivations and our expectations for ourselves?
There’s been much talk lately in light of the recent Brexit and Trump victories, about how ‘filter bubbles’ (a term coined by Eli Pariser in 2011) can create an imbalanced world view through algorithmic online filtering. I see a distinct parallel between this ‘filter bubble’ affecting the stories we see and the ‘advertising bubble’, which affects which adverts we’re exposed to.
The ramifications of adverts being so targeted as to blinker out alternative views of ourselves are far-reaching and disconcerting. Not fitting the mould that’s being incessantly rammed in our faces will no doubt contribute to feelings of inadequacy, and in some cases, emotional and psychological trauma. It’s only right that tech companies start thinking about the ethical impact, not only of personalised news feeds, but of personalised advertising. If the ‘filter bubble’ is influencing the way we think about the world, so too the ‘advertising bubble’ is influencing the way we think about ourselves. It’s time we take off the social blinkers before we start baking, hoovering and inadvertently trying out those sleep tips for new parents!