Are you being manipulated?

Cautionary Tales from a Digital Marketer

Whenever we talk about statistics related to the internet and social media, we usually think about millennials and their phones. We often forget that the older generations are online just as much as the younger ones. The internet is home for everyone, old and young alike. This makes the internet a marketer’s dream.

You might have read that and had no reaction at all. Everyone is online nowadays. So what? Well, for starters, each day a new article is published about how websites and social media platforms are recording, storing, and sharing our private and personal information. Just like Hansel and Gretel, we leave a trail of breadcrumbs (or should I say cookies) as we happily surf the web, unaware that there are multiple entities following us.

The average person will use their laptop’s built-in browser to surf the web. They will probably never clear their cookies. In our tangible life, this would equate to us leaving a sign on our front lawn that lists every place we have visited that day. You wouldn’t share that information with strangers, would you? I’m here to tell you that unfortunately, you do.

Once your information is online, there is no deleting it.

Most of us are aware that our personal information is being used and sold, and yet we continue to like, share and comment on a daily basis. Why? Why do we continue to use these social networks when we know the dangers of doing so?

For the most part, it’s because we can’t see the damage. A big reason why chain smokers, sunbathers, and soda drinkers continue to partake in these harmful activities, is because they can’t see the effects. It’s hard to stop something that gives you pleasure, even if you know it’s bad for you. All they see is or feel is a sense of relaxation, beautiful bronze skin, and a delicious sugar rush.

A Playground for Adults

People love to go online because it’s a great place to learn, share experiences, and connect with other people. Anyone who has family or friends who live far away knows how amazing it is to be able to talk to them and see how they are doing. The internet is one of the greatest inventions and it is useful for just about anything. You can work while at home, learn new languages, develop new tools, sell products, play games, build a new life and learn almost every skill possible. It truly is a playground for adults.

Hidden Dangers

Let’s pretend you have a baby and live in the safest place in the world. Nothing bad ever happens here. No one gets robbed, shot, or lied to. Knowing this, would you leave your baby unsupervised? Hopefully, you said no, because you know that no matter how safe a place claims to be, there are always hidden dangers.

When I say the internet is dangerous, you probably think of viruses, identity theft or scams. Although those are definitely real problems (and perhaps much more dangerous), they are not the ones I have in mind. My focus leans a little more towards manipulation and less towards hardware damage.

Photo by Ludovic Toinel on Unsplash

Nowadays, we are exposed to acutely targeted advertisements that use our personal preferences, likes, dislikes, and online behaviors to sell us products and services. It’s a normal practice and pretty much everyone does it. So why should we care? Because it is an invasion of our privacy. These companies are taking everything they know about us to craft their personalized marketing strategy. We are constantly being shown ads that are engineered to be irresistible to us, to you, as an individual.

Products are no longer marketed to segments, like parents or women over 30, or high school students. Now they are marketed to Patricia, single mother of three, recently divorced, who lives in Miami, vacations in Cancún, earns about $60,000 a year from her job as an architect, loves dogs, especially pugs, and uses her iPhone 7 to shop for clothes online.

Digital marketing has evolved to be incredibly specific. Thanks to platforms like Facebook and Google Ads, marketers have endless targeting options, allowing them to target anyone and get as detailed and personal as they want. Trust me, I’m one of those marketers.

So yes, you should care. We are slowly losing our freedom to choose. Companies are studying our behaviors and learning what makes us buy something and what does not. Then, they use this knowledge to manipulate, or rather to control, our buying behaviors. I believe in a few years, we will be advertised to in such a natural manner, that we won’t even realize it.

Subliminal Messages

In 1957, subliminal advertising became a widely known term. Companies used to show images during television shows, advertisements, or movies that were undetectable to the naked eye, but extremely influential on our subconscious mind. This method of advertising is banned in many countries because it is considered unethical, as it can manipulate your behaviors without you realizing it.

A screen capture taken from George W. Bush’s TV advertisement, quickly showing the word “rats” before displaying the slogan “Bureaucrats decide.”

Subliminal advertising and online advertising are by no means the same thing, but they both share the ability to influence our behaviors. If you’re familiar with advertising on social platforms, then you’re aware of how this works, but that is not the case for most people. Most people, especially the older generations, didn’t grow up with Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, TikTok, and Instagram. They are late adopters who familiarize themselves with the platform but not with what goes on behind the curtain. Luckily, some changes are being implemented to be able to keep your information private.

The Avon Lady

Suppose an Avon lady knocks on your door selling makeup. She successfully sells you an eye cream by telling you how beautiful your skin will be if you use it continuously. To me, that’s okay. You know she is selling something, you’re aware her claim might be exaggerated, but you decide to go ahead and make the purchase.

Now imagine your dog just died. You’re mourning, sad, and extremely emotional. A man knocks on your door. You open and notice he is selling books. You’re about to politely decline but then he says, “These books will change you. Those who have read them say they make you into the person your dog thinks you are.” So you immediately buy the book, moved by the emotion that arises as soon as you hear the word “dog.” You’ll do anything to become who your dog thought you were. This is using personal information to manipulate you into a purchasing decision. How did he even know you had a dog? He was spying on you, that’s how.

I hope this painted a clear picture of what I meant when I said the internet was dangerous. Mental and emotional manipulation techniques are used every day and not just for selling things but for many other reasons, including political ones, but I’ll leave that for another time. Be mindful of what you share online and research before buying into any sales pitch.

Always living in a state of calm, level-headed panic.

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