Ad About You

It’s now so disturbing how well online advertisements know me that I’m relieved when they don’t.

Photo illustration: a woman stares into her obscured reflection.
Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Andrew Haimerl/Unsplash.

The sense that an ad is following you around the internet is now as ubiquitous as emojis and bad opinions, but it’s not often that one makes your day. Last week, an ad for pimple cream—a product I thankfully don’t need, from a company I happily can’t recall—seemed to be all over the banners and margins of websites I browsed. I’ll admit to taking it as a compliment; as a thirtysomething woman, I embrace any and all assumptions of youth. But more importantly, being peddled zit goop was a sign that my nightmare of the internet as a personalized emall preying on my deepest desires and insecurities has not yet come true. The internet is trying to sell me what it thinks I want, but what it thinks I want is wrong. The relief felt all the more joyous given everyone’s reasonable suspicion that such mismatches between users and ads will one day be a thing of the past.

It is extremely difficult to not be surveilled as an ordinary person on the internet. And each day’s tech headlines bring more news about how we’re constantly analyzed, documented, and ultimately sold to advertisers by all-seeing tech behemoths that have made billions doing just that. Advertising is only the most noticeable manifestation of the personal information–hoovering machine that the internet has become—and how that data can be used, if not necessarily against us, then certainly to sell us stuff. Do my fears reek of paranoia? Sure. But that doesn’t mean they’re wrong. And I’m not alone. Conspiracy theories about Facebook using its phone app to spy on users abound. Even former Facebook insiders debunking such beliefs provide cold comfort, noting that users already hand over more personal, purchasing, and geographical information to the site and the app than the company or advertisers can use.

I didn’t always hate ads. I didn’t mind them so much as a kid, when each new 30-second TV spot showed me a world I wanted to be a part of, populated by things like pocket-size dollhouses, gooshy octagonal jellies, and backyard water slides that apparently don’t feel like they’ve just peeled your stomach skin clear off. Soon, though, commercials just became irritating background noise—so much calculated racket aimed at car-insurance hunters, mesothelioma sufferers, people who wash dishes and do laundry, i.e., anybody but me. And as an Asian American woman, I generally found the people in those ads, if not always alienating, not particularly resonant, either.

In many respects, internet ads make me feel seen in ways that TV commercials generally don’t. On Facebook, the site where I am most drawn to the ads (probably because they have the most dirt on me), I am often shown models of Asian descent or headless ones that I can easily project myself onto. (This is also the case with many retail sites.) Many more consumer images feature no human at all. A significant percentage of those Facebook ads are for products I own or would consider purchasing. A glance at my Facebook ad “preferences” (which anyone can view about themselves) offers little illumination in terms of why I’m so frequently shown ads that appeal to me. Some boxes the social network has placed me in are meaningless (“Close friends of people with birthdays in a month”), while others are wrong (“Engaged shoppers”) or unclear (“Multicultural Affinity: African American (US)”). Some boxes are correct, but I’d guess not terribly helpful (“Close friends of expats”). Facebook clearly knows me better than it’s willing to let on.

But being seen feels creepy when it’s only because somebody wants something from me. With pop culture products like movies and TV shows, I can at least suspend my disbelief about their existence primarily because someone with a lot of money thought they could make even more money off of them. So I consume a groundbreaking series like Fresh Off the Boat as art, but a Toyota commercial starring an Asian American family as a sign that market research has told advertising firms that Asian Americans have accrued enough purchasing power to be pandered to, even as I’m blinking away tears.

Ultimately, though, the joy of being seen as a group isn’t enough to compensate for the anxiety of being surveilled as an individual. I know it’s a losing endeavor, but I feel I should police myself when skimming ads on Facebook or any other site. Don’t linger too long on any ad. Don’t watch any videos or scroll through any image carousels. Definitely don’t click on anything. (Aargh, too late!) Facebook has been collecting information about me for the past decade-plus, and it will most likely do so for many more decades to come, with an evermore sophisticated and accurate level of algorithmic reconnaissance. So after a lifetime of wanting greater representation, when an internet ad rings my virtual doorbell to sell me acne cream, I now relish the thrill of not being seen, while I still can.