Online Advertising: The New Dot Com Bubble

What do we really know about the effectiveness of digital advertising? Are advertising platforms any good at manipulating us?

You’d be forgiven for thinking the answer to that last question is: yes, extremely good. After all, the market is huge. The amount of money spent on internet ads goes up each year. In 2018, more than $273bn dollars was spent on digital ads globally, according to research firm eMarketer. Most of those ads were purchased from two companies: Google ($116bn in 2018) and Facebook ($54.5bn in 2018).

Newspapers are teeming with treatises about these tech giants’ saturnine activities. An essay by best-selling author Yuval Noah Harari on “the end of free will” exemplifies the genre: according to the Israeli thinker, it’s only a matter of time before big data systems “understand humans much better than we understand ourselves.”

In a highly acclaimed new book, Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff predicts a “seventh extinction wave”, where human beings lose “the will to will”. Cunning marketers can predict and manipulate our behaviour. Facebook knows your soul. Google is hacking your brain.

I too used to believe that these tech giants were all-knowing entities. But while writing this story, I have come to realise that this belief is as wrong as it is popular.

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