Experts question the ethics of personalized, manipulative ads
08/01/2019 // Tracey Watson // Views

Most of us are captives, though we probably don't realize it. Sit in any restaurant, on any form of public transport or in virtually any place where people congregate, and it quickly becomes obvious that it is impossible for many of us to escape what experts are calling “the tyranny of the digital age.”

Glued to smartphone and tablet screens from a young age – the latest statistics say most kids now get their first smartphone at the age of 10 – we leave ourselves vulnerable to what behavioral scientist B.J. Fogg calls “captology,” voluntary enslavement to the invisible, manipulative power of technology.

If that sounds like paranoia, think again. Corporations have long been aware of the massive power of advertising, and social media and the internet have taken this manipulation to a whole new level.

And while we can with some careful decisions choose to avoid “normal” advertising, unless we avoid the internet completely, it is impossible to avoid the persuasive technology exploited by social media giants like Facebook and YouTube.

This has given rise to the question: Is it ethical to force people to endure this type of manipulation day after day? (Related: Is online privacy possible? See how your medical search data is being sold.)

The power of advertising

We are subjected to subconscious, manipulative advertising everywhere we go. Every company knows that this type of marketing has a direct influence on the choices we make.

The organization Open Democracy warns:

Advertising is everywhere. Media that were once largely commercial-free – from movies to the internet – now come replete with commercial messages. Not so long ago, most musicians were reluctant to see their work used to endorse shampoo or sneakers.  Today, the music and advertising industries are locked in a lucrative embrace.


We now have commercials in our schools and on our clothes. They clog up – with increasing speed – nearly every form of communication we devise. …

For all their diversity, advertisements share one basic value system. Advertisements may be individually innocent, collectively they are the propaganda wing of a consumerist ideology. The moral of the thousands of different stories they tell is that the only way to secure pleasure, popularity, security, happiness or [fulfillment] is through buying more; more consumption - regardless of how much we already have.

It is this fundamental fact – that advertising convinces us that we do not have enough to be happy – that makes it so dangerous. Allowing the minds of children to be shaped in this way can only lead to unhappiness.

Perhaps that is one of the reasons studies have found that teens who are addicted to electronic devices are at higher risk of developing mental health issues like depression and anxiety. (Related: Online advertising easily influences teens to eat more junk food.)

A waste of time

The way in which social media sites are set up is designed to keep us hooked on a specific platform. When you click on a YouTube video, for example, you can be sure that you will be prompted to open multiple other videos with similar content.

While this may seem helpful, the reality is that social media giants use this type of information to see what you’re most interested in, so they can sell that information to commercial entities.

And clicking on one video after the other – usually about something quite unimportant – steals our most precious commodity: time.

“A tool, not a trap”

As noted by French engineering student Tim Krief, the internet “should be a tool, not a trap.”

The internet is an incredibly powerful tool, one to which we devote a great deal of time. And we tend to trust the information we glean online. This has placed a massive amount of power in the hands of a very small number of companies. And those companies are determined to exploit that power, doing whatever they deem necessary to maximize profits. has more stories on how social media giants use (and abuse) your private information.

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