The dangers of online surveillance

Bob Hoffman was invited to speak to some members of Parliament in the UK. They are considering legislation to protect kids from online surveillance. Here’s an excerpt of what he shared…

Thanks for allowing me the opportunity to speak on the important topic of surveillance in online advertising. 

Advertising’s traditional job has been to impart information to people. Today, however, certain types of advertising have become equally concerned with collecting information about people. I do not believe it is an exaggeration to say that a good deal of online advertising can be viewed as spyware that only looks like advertising.

Most researchers estimate that about five display ads out of 10,000 get clicked on. But almost every one of those 10,000 ads is capable of harvesting information about the person the ad is served to.

Like most of you, I’m not a computer scientist or a software engineer. But you don’t have to be an automotive engineer to understand that a car can run you over.

Our ability to use software to track people around the web and reach each individual with personalized advertising was sure to make advertising more relevant, more timely, and more likable.

… For years, the advertising and marketing industries have been hiding behind the skirts of Facebook and other online platforms…

Our ability to listen to consumer conversations through social media and react quickly couldn’t help but connect brands more closely with their customers.

But advertising has gotten worse, not better. 

Rather than creating advertising that is “more relevant, more timely and more likable” we are creating advertising that is more annoying, more disliked, and more avoided.

One study showed that of all forms of advertising, the eight types most disliked by consumers were all forms of online advertising.

In 2017 I wrote a book entitled “BadMen: How Advertising Went from a Minor Annoyance to a Major Menace.” In that book I wrote that we know the dangers that accrue when governments know everything about us, follow us everywhere, read our communications, and know who we talk to and what we talk about. 

As we move about the web, trackers relentlessly gather information about where we go, what we look at, and what we interact with.

This information is then fed into algorithms which are formulas that are derived from our behavior and to some extent describe our personality. 

For example, my Facebook page is completely different from yours. It is based on the algorithms that describe me. My page shows me content and ads that are likely to be more engaging to me.

The purpose of these algorithms is primarily to keep visitors “inside the corral” of the publisher or the platform. The more time I spend in their corral, the more money the platform can realize from selling ad space.

Surveillance marketing is little more than ten years old but it has already helped drive a wedge of intolerance into democratic societies.

… There is no reason online advertising can’t be viable without spying on us…

For years, the advertising and marketing industries have been hiding behind the skirts of Facebook and other online platforms.

While these companies have taken the heat, it has been largely unrecognized by the public and by policy makers that it is for the sole benefit of the advertising and marketing industry that Facebook and others do their work. 

Facebook derives 99% of its revenue from advertising. We are the hidden hand that guides and finances these dangerous practices.

And how does the advertising industry justify the damage we are doing? 

The first and most dishonest of the claims is that the free internet is reliant on surveillance for its revenue model. This is simply not true. 

Traditional media — TV, radio, press, outdoor — did very well for decades without tracking. There is no reason online advertising can’t be viable without spying on us.

Is the free internet reliant on advertising? Yes. 

Is it reliant on tracking? No.

Last month Apple changed its operating system to give its iPhone and iPad users the choice of being tracked or not. Initial reports say that 96% of people here in the US chose not to be tracked. 

Only 4% voted for “more relevant advertising.”

You might find it amusing that marketers claim that tracking provides such relevant advertising when data shows you have to run 10,000 ads to get five people to click.

Ending tracking, ending surveillance, ending spying on the public is not a panacea for all the problems of the digital world. But it is a great place to start. We need to get rid of tracking – not advertising – to help make the web what it ought to be.

Thank you for listening.

Bob Hoffman is author of “Advertising For Skeptics”, “BadMen: How Advertising Went From A Minor Annoyance To A Major Menace” and several other books about advertising.

MARKETING Magazine is not responsible for the content of external sites.

The APPIES is an annual event that presents a rare opportunity for creative, media, digital and marketing agencies or brands to present their best campaigns to the industry.

This is the only event where Live Presentations meets Live Judging.

Similar to TED Talks, The APPIES is the chance for great presenters with outstanding work to show it off to some of the industry’s most important industry leaders.

This year’s winners will receive Gold, Silver or Bronze trophies for 21 categories, and 6 special Best of Best categories (red trophies) that require no submissions!

Campaign entries must have run between June 2023 to May 2024

Submissions Deadline
30th June 2024

APPIES Festival – Judging & Presentations
11th – 12th July 2024 (Malaysia)


Download Event PDF
Submit Entries Here

Subscribe to our Telegram channel for the latest updates in the marketing and advertising scene