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Advertising: the science behind marketing products in a capitalist society

SciTech explores the science behind advertising and the ethical concerns that surround it.

By Lila Horne, Second year Biology

There is always something to sell, and always someone to buy. SciTech explores the science behind advertising and the ethical concerns that surround it.

Advertising is an inescapable part of our lives. It is often impossible to leave the house or use the internet without encountering an advert of some sort. It has been around since at least the ancient Greeks, with remains from Pompeii having been found decorated with marketing ads for political campaigns, goods, and services.

Whilst the world has changed dramatically since then, advertising still plays a prevalent role in our society. The art of bringing attention to a commercial good is supported by a multi-billion-pound industry, of which every individual and available resource is looking for the best and easiest way to decrease the money spent outwards while increasing the in-house rewards.

The art of bringing attention to a commercial good is supported by a multi-billion-pound industry

A common method of modern advertising is using data-driven analysis to highlight individuals who would be more susceptible to buying the product. This method has been around for years, with TV adverts being shown at specific time slots depending on what type of show was being aired to match the target demographics. As technology and social media have become more advanced, so has this technique. Algorithms can be made using internet users’ data to show them the ads they are most likely to buy from.

Unsplash / Tania Mousinho

The algorithms start by ranking the adverts that companies have paid to be promoted based on their appearance and how previous users have engaged with it. As hundreds of companies can be fighting to reach the same demographic, this ensures that user participation is maintained. If a company’s ad does not rank high on this scale, then they will have to pay more for their desired outreach, or create a better ad. These algorithms then rank the most likely users who will be responsive to the ad based on their previous search and engagement history and present them accordingly.

With some apps like Instagram and TikTok giving rise to extremely niche groups, the advertisement can be so specific that a sale is almost guaranteed, benefitting not only the company who has made the sale, but also the host app who will likely maintain a relationship with that company.

Theoretically, there is nothing wrong with this. In fact, previous surveys show that around 54 per cent of the UK have stated they would rather see relevant ads than ones they care little about. The problem is that the data is not always collected or shared by these companies consensually, which many users believe violates their privacy rights.

Data is not always collected or shared consensually | Unsplash / Dan Nelson

This is a particularly important issue, especially when considering how political campaigns have used this data to target specific voters and influence election results, such as in 2018 when Cambridge Analytica was being found to be using personal data that they had collected from Facebook users without their consent. The data was then employed to help the political campaigns of Donald Trump during the 2016 American presidential election and the Vote Leave campaign during the UK’s EU referendum, alongside many others.

However, legislators are pushing against the exploitation of users and for the protection of data. After the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the UK government responded by introducing the Data Protection Act 2018 which aims to implement strict guidelines and rules for data collection, with emphasis on safeguarding more personal information such as race, political opinions, and health.

The debate surrounding algorithms typically does not focus on them specifically but instead on how and who is collecting the data for them. Overall, algorithms are here to stay; they successfully complete the role of advertisement efficiently and more effectively than ever before.

Despite increased laws against not consensually storing user’s data, it is probable that another privacy scandal will arise in the near future. When living in a capitalistic society where the profit margin is the most important thing of all, exploitation is almost guaranteed.

Featured image: Unsplash / Joshua Earle