Targeted Advertising (Online)

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Targeted advertising in an online environment is a type of advertising in which advertisers use information gathered about individual consumers such as demographics, purchase history, or previous behavior in order to appeal to the interests of that specific consumer. [1] Examples of targeted advertising are prevalent in all sorts of media today, including television and online media. Examples of targeted advertising include's recommendations based on browsing history,'s simple surveys asking whether an ad was relevant to a viewer's interests, as well as text advertisements on Gmail based on location of login IP addresses and email messages. Targeted advertising is made possible through Data Aggregation Online. Due to the fact that many of these actions are performed without a user's consent, ethical concerns have arisen focusing on personal privacy, personal choice, and vulnerability of targets.

Advertising can be tailored to fit the desires of an individual consumer based on their past search histories and online behaviors.


Targeted online advertising is popular due to the fact that an individual's online activity can be monitored through the use of cookies and web analytics software. Data mining companies use the information they gather on people to create personal profiles that they then sell to advertising companies. Using this personalized information, advertising companies can then target specific people based on their IP address and deliver ads tailored to the user's interests [2]. This can occur because websites like Google assign computers Cookies, which is a long string of numbers and letters that identifies that specific user. Each time the user searches something, the content of their search is categorized and paired with that user’s cookie, creating a comprehensive Internet usage profile. This packaged profile contains information such as the estimated age, gender, approximate location, and a list of interests of the user. Advertisers use this information to send customized advertisements to the consumer. For example, someone who frequently searches for weight loss tips on the Internet would likely receive advertisements related to weight loss based off their past web searches.

Methods of Targeted Advertising Online

Types of online advertisement vary based on the type of technology being leveraged to disperse the information and the audience which is trying to be reached.

Email Advertisement

Marketing through email can occur when a potential consumer selects to receive information on a website which they have visited.

Pop-up Advertisement

Pop-up advertisements are those which generate a new browser window without prompt in order to show information about the company or product being advertised. The pop-up window can contain text, images, animations, or any combination of the three. One downside of pop-up advertisements is they draw the person away from the web content they were intending to view, which is bad for the hosting website. It can also be detrimental for advertisers, as pop-up ads may crash the browser and completely interrupt their web surfing experience.[3]

Embedded Advertisement

Advertisements that are a part of the online content which the individual is viewing. They may be a simple bar found at the top or site of a webpage which would facilitate a click-through to the advertiser's site. Embedded advertisements can also contain visual components like moving pictures or videos. Some embedded advertisements can require a user's participation in some form before they can be closed.

  • Banner Ads

A banner ad is a graphical bar, or box, containing text and images. It is designed to grab the viewer's attention when visiting webpages. Although they come in all shapes and sizes, the most common sizes are 468x60 and 234x60.[3] Banner ads can be static, meaning they are unchanging, or dynamic, where there is some sort of animation going on in the ad. They are sold on either a CPM (cost per thousand views) or CPC (cost per click) basis.

  • Text Ads

Text ads have no graphics and contain only text. It usually contains a few lines of text, called copy, and a link to a webpage or email address[3]. Like banner ads, they are also usually billed on a CPM or CPC basis. Text ads can commonly be found in Google searches, which are embedded using Google's AdSense [3]. AdSense serves its users relevant ads, based on user profiling.

  • Interstitials

Interstitials are advertisements shown on a transition page between two web pages. For example, on some news websites, when you click on a story it will take you to this interstitial page where the ad is served. You can choose to read or view the ad, or click a button to go to your desired content. Advertisers utilize interstitial advertising because there is a lot more space to serve the ad than there is with a banner or text ad.

  • HTML Ads

Although the software is more complex, these advertisements can take a variety of forms with more content than just merely text and graphics. HTML advertisements may contain tabs, text input boxes, or other forms of interactive software[3]. They allow the user to interact more with the ad, rather than just reading or viewing it.

  • Rich Media Ads

Similar to HTML Ads, rich media advertisements usually utilize Flash or Java to increase the complexity of ads. Despite the longer load time, these ads are interactive and really useful to advertisers for serving a message to potential customers[3].

Place in the "Computer Ethics is Unique" Debate

The controversy that surrounds targeted advertising makes it something that should be looked at in terms of Computer Ethics. There are those who feel that targeted advertising is a perfectly ethical practice as it brings more relevant advertisements to users who also have the ability to prevent their information from being used. These advocates believe it is a perfectly legal and ethical advertising technique. Others, however, believe that this new type of advertising should be re-examined as it is unlike any type of advertising used previously; in fact, the only thing resembling targeted advertising would be illegally sifting through ones mailbox to see that person’s interests, then selling that information to advertisers to use for themselves. However because targeted advertising works on such an unprecedented scale, it cannot be compared to anything even similar to it. Thus, targeted advertising fits in with the Computer Ethics is Unique thesis and should be analyzed using a new moral framework.

Ethics of Targeted Advertising Online

Though targeted advertising brings consumers customized advertisements and has created a lucrative industry in Data Mining, it has become a very controversial topic in relation to online privacy.

Violations of Perceived Privacy

By aggregating data concerning what links an individual user clicks on and which websites they visit as a result of search engine queries, targeted advertising can be construed as a violation of a user's sense of privacy online. Feelings of anonymity are often implicit due to the superficially private context of internet use, and many users are not aware that third parties are aggregating data as ephemeral as a mouseclick without notice or consent. This conception of course precludes a framework of individual responsibility for fully understanding implications of technology use, but the manner in which individuals are introduced to internet use frequently emphasized dangers concerning identity theft and similar illegal violations of user security. As Andrew Lewis pointed out, "If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold”[4]. However, many users are not cognizant of this point and therefore perceive data aggregation and targeted advertising tactics as violating their personal privacy online. Although data policies outline terms of privacy for using their technology, as stated previously many individuals do not fully realize the implications of their use of technological devices and the responsibility they take on in deciding do so.

"Opt Out" versus "Opt In" Information Gathering Schemes

Targeted advertising online operates using an "opt-out" scheme, meaning the users' information is extracted only if that user manually opts out. Users are automatically eligible to be monitored on certain websites such as Google searches unless they explicitly opt out. On the contrary, an "opt-in" system means the users' information is only extracted if that user manually volunteers to give it. While in an “opt out” system users must remove themselves from being censored, an “opt in” system gives those interested in participating a chance to and prevents those who do not want to participate the luxury of not being automatically enrolled [5]. As a result of the "opt-out" scheme, many feel that targeted advertising is a violation of privacy. Because of a general lack of knowledge concerning cookies, targeted advertising's good intentions seem like unwanted censorship. Those who hold this position maintain that targeted advertising is an unethical practice within the framework of Computer Ethics. People feel they have a right to privacy online and that the apparent espionage by advertising companies violates that right.

Jeff Bezos, CEO of, was one of the first people to use the power of the Internet to collect information about people and use it to sell targeted products. The main goal of was to create a personalized store that would help readers find books and books find the right audience of readers.[6] introduced collaborative filtering, through which Amazon watched what types of books people were buying in addition to what similar people were buying, and used this information to make suggestions as to what types of books people might be interested in. As more people used the site to purchase books, the more personalized the site continued to be. As this filtering grew, Amazon used reverse tricks to get people to purchase books. Now, publishers can pay Amazon to promote their book in the site through this recommender system. It is nearly impossible for the user to tell if other objective users are suggesting a certain title or if the book has been promoted by Amazon software. People are now tricked by these targeted ads and may end up buying certain titles that are not at all relevant to their interests. In addition, stores all this collected data about the interests of readers and uses it in order to send them targeted emails.


Facebook Ads are targeted according to your Facebook profile information. Your age, location, education, relationship status, interests such as favorite movies, music and much more are available to advertisers to access and aggregate data to reach the right audience for their ads. Advertisers can set a targeting filter to select which group of people will see their ad, making it possible to focus on or target the people most likely to be interested in the product, amongst worldwide Facebook users. Facebook then tells the advertiser how many people the ad could reach according to the filters they have selected. The more advanced the targeting options are, the narrower the target will be but also the ads will potentially be more successful. By adding more personal information to your Facebook profile, you are adding to the personal data that helps advertisers deliver more targeted ads [7].

Targeted Advertising to Children

Not only has targeted advertising been condemned for its alleged privacy violations, but it has also drawn much criticism form advertisers targeting children. Children are extremely easy to appeal to given their innocent nature, but the ethical issue goes even deeper into gender discrimination. Commercials targeted at young boys often depict adventures, battling, and other boys while advertising targeted at girls depicts bright pink, baking, or dolls. There really isn't room for a girl or boy to branch out into each other's sphere. In 2016, Target stores began offering gender neutral room decorations for girls and boys. The room decor featured items that appeal to both genders and don't draw lines between what is a boy's room or what is defined as a girl's room. Herding boys and girls' interests into what these advertisers believe each group should like to play with easily borders on unethical. It can be argued that dividing the two leaves girls with and unfair disadvantage later in developing years. These girls may see looking good and baking as the only things acceptable for girls and choose not to pursue other interests.

Example of imagery on girl vs boy lego sets. Is it ethical to generalize?

Advertisers which target primarily children through their use of data aggregation have faced stiff social recourse [8]. In addition, advertisers have begun to use methods suggested by psychologists in order to better target children [9]. Consequently, numerous interest groups, parents, and lobbyists have united against targeted advertising, calling for it to be banned.

Internationally, Sweden is the prime example of a country that has completely banned advertising aimed at children under 12. In fact, it has been this way in Sweden since 1991. Similar restrictions have been added in the UK, who banned all advertising that may result in harm to children physically, mentally, or morally as well as ads that take advantage of the natural credulity and sense of loyalty of children. Whether or not the US will employ a similar strategy remains to be seen.

Ads Targeting Senior Citizens

Due to the generational discrepancy when it comes to technology, many older generations (aged 60+ years) aren't as technically knowledgable as many of the younger generations who grew up with technology are. [10] This can cause issues as many older Internet users don't know how to recognize malicious viruses and other scams that can compromise their online identity and personal information. Many of these scams target older Internet users because they know that these users aren't as technologically savvy as younger users. [11] Online advertisements also target older Internet users for this same reason.

Example of a Native Advertisement on Buzzfeed

There are many advertisements online that specifically target older citizens, hoping they will be fooled because they aren't aware of targeted ads or online scams. The most common targeted ads aimed at senior citizens are advertisements for anti-aging creams and pills, guaranteeing a younger appearance in just one use. [12] These advertisements often showcase photoshopped before and after pictures to make the product's abilities more believable. These advertisements are dangerous because they can compromise confidential financial information as well as over-charge you for fake products. Other advertisements aimed at older Internet users are social security, funeral insurance, and reverse mortgage ads. [12] These advertisements target unknowing senior citizens who often fall victim to these scams and end up losing thousands.

Senior citizens are the fastest growing Facebook users, [13] but there are some ads that are hard to differentiate from actual Facebook posts by even the most savviest social media users. "Native Advertisements" are targeted advertisements that are disguised as real Facebook posts to fool users into clicking on them. [14] Older social media users may be especially likely to fall victim to these ads for their inconspicuous and blended nature. [12] Many other websites such as Buzzfeed and Twitter also make use of native ads to get the reader interested instead of having them scroll past typical looking advertisements.

Recent Controversies

Cambridge Analytica

Cambridge Analytica is a political consulting company that specializes in targeted advertising. It was founded in 2013 by the SCL group and is partially owned by Robert Mercer, an outspoken American conservative. He and his daughter Rebekah invested millions in efforts to reshape conservative politics, funding Citizens United, the anti-mainstream-media Media Research Center and Breitbart News. The Mercers moved forward with a political data strategy creating Cambridge Analytica, which would use SCL’s data and methodology for political work.[15]. There have been many recent debates about the ethical use of data analytics for political purposes. Unlike many companies that use targeted advertising for commercial use and financial gain, many companies use target political adds online to spread "fake news" and propaganda.“Combining the precision of data analytics with the insights of behavioral psychology and the best of individually addressable advertising technology,” the company’s website pledges, “you can run a truly end-to-end campaign.”[15]

In March of 2018, Cambridge Analtyica's business practices and data targeting operations were exposed by many news outlets internationally. It was found that the company was receiving massive amounts of Facebook user data from a researcher claiming to use it for academic research. Undercover investigations on key Cambridge Analytica employees were run by independent news organizations provide video evidence of Cambridge Analytica spreading propaganda. In the videos, Mr. Nix describes using campaign tactics such as entrapping political opponents with bribes and sex. The sales pitch was captured by undercover journalists at British broadcaster Channel 4. Mr. Nix’s suspension also follows reports that the company improperly used data from millions of Facebook Inc. profiles without authorization. [16] As of April 6, 2018, Facebook has suspended Cambridge Analytica from its data and services saying that the firm violated its third party developer policies. The Federal Trade Commission is currently investigating Facebook based on Cambridge Amaltyica's use of its data.


Millions of Americans and people in other countries have been effected by the practices of Cambridge Analtyica. In order to gain accesss to user data, Cambridge Analytica asked users to complete a simple one time survey. When respondents authorized Cambridge Analytica access to their Facebook profiles, the app performed its sole function: to take the users’ data and that of their friends. There was no “in-app” experience to speak of.[17] This access gave Cambridge Analytical the ability to mine the information of each respondents friends, exponentially adding more people to its data system. Records reviewed by The Times show that roughly 300,000 people took the survey, but because of the access to friends’ information allowed at the time, Facebook said that as many as 87 million users could have been affected.[17]

Legal Proceedings

The uproar over Cambridge Analytica’s misuse of the data has added to questions Facebook was already confronting over the use of its platform by those seeking to spread Russian propaganda and fake news.Facebook, which learned of the data misuse in December 2015, plans to begin telling affected users on Monday, a day before its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, is to testify before Congress and in Parliament in the Uk.[17] A warrant to investigate the Cambridge Analytica headquarters was requested on March 22, 2018 and was finally granted on March, 29 2018.

See also


  1. Wikipedia:Targeted_advertising
  2. Stein, Joel. "Data Mining: How Companies Know Your Personal Information - TIME." Breaking News, Analysis, Politics, Blogs, News Photos, Video, Tech Reviews - Time Magazine, 10 Mar. 2011. Web. 06 Oct. 2011. <,9171,2058205,00.html>.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5
  4. Coffee Theory: Ten Commandments for a Digital Age." Retrieved from:
  5. Wikipedia:Opt-out
  6. The Filter Bubble |
  7. How Facebook Ads Work - Social Ads Tool |
  8. Nairn, Agnes, and Alexander Dew. "Pop-ups, Pop-unders, Banners and Buttons: The Ethics of Online Advertising to Primary School Children." Journal of Direct, Data and Digital Marketing Practice 9.1 (2007): 30-46. Journal of Direct, Data and Digital Marketing. 1 May 2007. Web. <>.
  9. Clay, Rebecca A. "Advertising to Children: Is It Ethical?" American Psychological Association 31.8 (2000). Web. 7 Oct. 2011. <>.
  10. Jiang, J. 2018. Millennials stand out for their technology use, but older generations also embrace digital life. Pew Research Center.
  11. Hughes, T. 2018. More fraudsters are scamming senior citizens through technology — and it's costing them millions. USA Today.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 n.a. 2014. SIX DECEPTIVE ADS TARGETING SENIORS.
  13. Kiger, P. J. 2018. Older Adults’ Use of Facebook Continues to Grow. AARP.
  14. n.a. 2013. ADS OF A DIFFERENT COLOR.
  15. 15.0 15.1 Bump, Philip. "Everything you need to know about the Cambridge Analytica-Facebook debacle." Washington Post, 19 Mar. 2018. Infotrac Newsstand, Accessed 22 Apr. 2019.
  16. Ballhaus, R. (2018). Cambridge Analytica Suspends CEO Alexander Nix After Video’s Release. [online] WSJ. Available at: [Accessed 22 Apr. 2019].
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 [ You Are the Product’: Targeted by Cambridge Analytica on Facebook

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