Why The Birth Of Surveillance Capitalism Signals The End Of Behavioral Targeting

Jay Friedman headshot

Data-Driven Thinking” is written by members of the media community and contains fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media.

Today’s column is written by Jay Friedman, president and partner at Goodway Group.

Want to start a social movement? There are plenty of resources online to help you; TED even offers a quick, four-step guide to starting a movement.

Because I’m in a one-upping sort of mood, let me best them by a full step. Here is Jay’s three-step guide to creating a social movement:

  • Target an easy enemy (The more faceless, big and wealthy, the better.).
  • Create a name that shames that enemy.
  • Spread sensational news about the dangers of that enemy, panicky tone preferred.

The result? Outrage! Even though most social movements have real merit, recent social movements have gained traction in part by following these three steps.

Now, the enemy is us: everyone in digital media who works with user data.

Step #1

We’re big (Google and Facebook are only part of the ecosystem.), we’re faceless (Who knows who’s behind that ad that just showed up on my screen?) and because of Google and Facebook, we appear to be wealthy.

Step one completed.

Step #2

Harvard Business School professor Shoshana Zuboff coined the phrase surveillance capitalism to suggest that corporations and individuals are getting wealthy by spying on others.

Those doing this should be ashamed!

Step two completed.

Now, step #3

Add a little sensational news – panicky, of course – and we’ve got a movement. Let’s try these on for size:

Targeted Advertising Is Ruining The Internet And Breaking The World” – Vice

Twenty Years Of Surveillance Marketing” – Wired

“’The Goal Is To Automate Us-‘ – Welcome To The Age Of Surveillance Capitalism” – The Guardian

Making the rounds lately is a more reasonably titled article: “The Case Against Behavioral Advertising Is Stacking Up.” The problem is, the actual content of the article isn’t even relevant to why behavioral targeting is good or bad.

Step three completed.

Now what?

Now that surveillance capitalism has moved through Jay’s three steps to create a social movement, I believe it will be game over for behavioral targeting, globally, over the next few years.

As these tools and targeting types are removed from our ecosystem, the unintended consequences will emerge. We’ll see ads that are truly irrelevant to us. Marketing budgets will be less effective than they were in the past. Marketers may make short-term moves to fund more search, where they feel like they know more about the users, only to realize that having a top of the funnel is just as valuable as having a bottom of the funnel.

But we’ll get used to it. The best thing to do now as a marketer or agency is to start heavily analyzing signals we will be able to use within the restricted environment of Apple’s Intelligent Tracking Prevention 2.0 (ITP2), because I believe this environment will spread beyond Apple.

ITP2 and the mounting pressure against behavioral targeting from the surveillance capitalism movement is supposed to be about improving the consumer experience. But consumers seeing ads for products that are completely irrelevant to them is not an improvement – it’s a step backward for both consumers and marketers.

A solution that involves simple compromises is better for all. One such compromise could be eliminating product/SKU-level retargeting because that is often cited as being creepy. And perhaps there should be a 24-hour window before users can be retargeted. Not great for marketers, as it further limits the creepy factor, but still much better for marketers than not having retargeting or behavioral targeting capabilities at all.

Follow Jay Friedman (@jaymfriedman) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

Enjoying this content?

Sign up to be an AdExchanger Member today and get unlimited access to articles like this, plus proprietary data and research, conference discounts, on-demand access to event content, and more!

Join Today!


  1. One the one hand, targeting/tracking services provide value to advertisers and thus probably increase the amount of money spent on advertising.

    On the other hand, targeting/tracking services seem to divert a lot of money on its way from the advertiser to the publisher.

    Wouldn’t publishers actually be better off without all of those targeting/tracking services? (Even if you don’t consider their negative impact on page speed, security, privacy, battery drain, and mobile data usage.)

  2. I hope that regulators and consumers wise-up a bit about this before it’s too late. It would be a lot harder to reverse things once 18 year olds start seeing “Depends” diaper ads and get even more annoyed.

  3. @Steffen – That assumes that getting as much of the marketer’s money to the publisher at all costs is an advertiser’s goal. It’s not. An advertiser’s goal is to create the highest return for their dollar, and at this point in time, paying for behavioral data (1P, 2P, or 3P,) when done right, returns more to the marketer than site-based targeting alone.

  4. What is really creepy is the amount of Personal Identifiable Information (PII) that companies like Google and Facebook have. They have every individual mapped against the multiple screens they use or own. Why is are media companies not joining force against this? Cookies are getting a lot of the blame for tracking, but they can be useful and anonymous at the same time. In comparison to tracking against PII this is basically harmless.

  5. Contextual advertising worked very well in the past. Plus, it gives the media companies some added value and ability to make a little bit more instead of a little bit less.