After the past year’s wall-to-wall cavalcade of death and dreck, it’s not a surprise to see a lot of folks stepping into 2021 with what can best be described as “modest expectations” for the world writ large and their Capacity To Deal with whatever it throws their way. This is the year that we’ve seen people finally embracing the sorts of incremental self-improvements that skew bite-sized and boring, while others have suggested just shrugging off the yearly challenges we typically set for ourselves on January 1.
Personally, I couldn’t be more relieved. This kind of mass permission to just… chill out for once is kind of a radical idea, especially if you count yourself among the vastmajority of New Year’s resolution-ers that fizzle on their way-too-lofty goals after a few short weeks. If you are, you might be familiar with the looming sense of “ugh” that accompanies a set of expectations you can’t possibly reach on your own.
And if you’re really unlucky, then that exact sense of personal failure will stalk you through targeted ads, everywhere, indefinitely.
Specifically, you also likely need to be a cis woman, and you need to have any sort of interest that can broadly fall under the “weight” or “weight loss” umbrella. Talk to anyone that ticks those two objectively broad boxes, and there’s a pretty good chance that they’ll be pelted across the internet with ads promoting new healthcare apps or supplements that all promise to make your supposedly gross body less gross. And nobody really seems to be safe: The ads find their way to plus-sized Instagrammers and gaggles of preteens on TikTok. If it weren’t for a pair of ubiquitous pj’s, the biggest mystery in my inbox this week would be how… disturbingly prevalent these ads are.
While I can’t tell you if this is some kind of cosmic prank against women as a whole, I can tell you that pool of unfortunate ladies is about to get a whole lot bigger. Buried under the pleas to take it easy on the expectations we all have for ourselves this coming year, we’re also seeing survey after survey after survey unanimously pointing to a U.S. consumer that might want to kick back and relax but still wants to exercise more and lose a bit of lockdown pudge in 2021.
If you’re in the business of targeting ads for a new, hip, totally-not-a-scam diet product, these are the kinds of audience you’re likely going after: one that’s not only going to click on your (again, not-a-scam) product, but one that won’t be bummed out by seeing it on their screen. At least, not at first. A good chunk of these resolution-ers will probably end up throwing in the towel early on, but the data from their fitness apps and wearable devices will keep persisting regardless, meaning that data will still keep being flagged for wellness and fitness brands looking to advertise their goods on every platform—even if you’ve reached a point where seeing those ads makes you want to burrow into a den of self-loathing and empty pints of ice cream.
When you can’t escape a certain category of ads no matter what platform you’re on, generally there are two things you should know. A) there’s a ton of money being spent somewhere behind the scenes, and B) there’s a chance that money isn’t being spent wisely.
In short, advertisers aren’t specifically stalking you to make you feel bad about your failed resolutions. In fact, they likely have no idea it’s happening at all.
The Making-You-Feel-Shitty Industrial Complex
Let’s start with a brief breakdown of the $4.2 trillion dollar market that brought these ads into being in the first place. In general, the detox teas and diet pills that are the scourge of Instagram’s ad networks fall under the purview of the “wellness industry,” a dizzyingly broad term that encompasses, as the name suggests, anything that’s marketed to make you feel “well”—think acai bowls, meditation apps, and anything “athletisure.” The flu meds in my medicine cabinet aren’t products of the wellness industry, but the pricey “beauty vitamins” that I bought from my local Sephora definitely are.
In spite of the widespread economic collapse that accompanied the surge of covid-19 across the country, all signs point to everything “well” bouncing back stronger than before. And why wouldn’t it? One recent Vanity Fair piece pointed out that being caught in the eye of a global pandemic will naturally get you thinking about your health more than you would otherwise. Plus, a staggering number of people jobless and uninsured. If Zoom yoga classes and at-home elliptical bikes promise even a brief bit of (semi-affordable) solace, I promise that’s better than being stuck in a month-long state of inertia.
Because “wellness” is such an amorphous term that encompasses healthcare, beauty, and anything CBD-adjacent, it can be tricky to estimate how much marketers are paying in order to target people with these products. A recent Digiday report quoted that the “health and beauty industry”—which encompasses weight loss and weight gain aids, vitamins, and more—is set to drop $1.5 billion dollars on advertising this year, which is a $300 million dollar drop from the figures put down in 2019. Sifting through the data though, marketers promoting “nutritional supplements” were immune from the dip.
Anyone who’s seen their share of supplement ads littering their Instagram feeds can tell you the line between an ad for a generic jar of pills and an ad for a generic jar of pills with weight-loss properties is moderately fuzzy at best. The biggest difference, at least as far as ad targeting is concerned, is that one suggests you’re interested in the nebulous concept of “being healthy,” while you could infer that the second ad was microtargeted towards audiences that are, perhaps, deeply unhappy with the way their body looks.
But how could an ad know that?
The Data Our Diets Leave Behind
I should preface all this with a disclaimer: If you’re reading this in order to figure out why you were targeted on your account with any specific shitty diet ad, this isn’t the place for that.
There’s an infamous quote from the late Senator Ted Stevens about the internet being a “series of tubes,” but that phrase actually perfectly describes the way digital advertising works. Imagine that one 3D pipe screensaver that everyone had back in the ‘90s, but picture one pipe representing each of the more than 8,000 companies underlying the adtech sphere. Data from our devices gets sucked up at one end, and the ad dollars that some anonymous player shoved into that (rapidly growing!) rat’s nest cause a targeted ad to be plunked out the other hole. Companies like Facebook have offered a tiny peek into the “ad preferences” that dictate why you’re targeted with certain ads across its properties, but even at the best of times, the explanations skew kinda vague.
Instead, sometimes the best way to approach these sorts of stories is to hunt down the shady broker or middleman that’s making bank off of this diet-related data. And I do mean bank: Come January 1, you have not only the Whole Foods and Sweetgreen’s of the world looking to reach the wallets of folks embracing the “new year, new me” lifestyle, but you also have the (slowly reopening) gyms and studios looking to reach potential members before the inevitable fall off the wagon. You have companies marketing overpriced sneakers or sports bras, looking to figure out who in their right mind would drop $150 dollars plus on a pair of running shoes before they inevitably collect dust somewhere at the bottom of their closet.
In the brief time I’ve been blessed with the task of researching that aforementioned rat’s nest of trackers, targeters, and Scrooge McDuck-esque piles of cash, I learned that this dizzying scale comes with a silver lining: data brokers need to brag to be heard. Someone with a grip on this particularly profitable health-conscious audience isn’t going to keep that quiet.
After about an hour of snooping, I was able to track down more than a dozen data companies that promoted reaching resolution-makers in one of two ways. In some cases, bundles were marketed for the brands looking to target resolution-makers specifically. Other companies went more general, pitching targeting capabilities for health- and fitness-centric audiences that could be reused year-round. The one thing these players generally won’t brag about is where they’re pulling this data from—but after a few late nights and at least one good rage-cry in my home office, I was able to piece together some of the data sources they’re pulling from. We’ll be following up with a full breakdown on how that works, but since there’s only so much adtech one can read about in a single sitting, let’s get some of the main points out of the way first.
The biggest takeaway here (at least from my POV) is that even the most benign data that our phones leak out can ultimately be twisted into something sinister by a player with enough resources. Here’s an example: The adtech company Inmobi put out a blog toward the end of last year breaking down a rough picture of the type of consumer that was prone to download a popular fitness app to manage their 2020 fitness goals. This consumer, Inmobi explained, was probably female, probably had a mid- to- good-ish salary, and was somewhere between her mid-twenties and mid-forties. She was probably white, married, and living in a state with good running weather, like Florida or California.
Inmobi didn’t have any data that was explicitly resolution-centric, but it had tons of data on gymgoers and wellness buffs that was being promoted for the New Year just the same. Some of these personas are whipped up using Inmobi’s native polling platform, Pulse, that lets partners poll app-users market-research style—but the beating heart of this operation is the company’s software development kit, or SDK. There’s been a ton written on this specific branch of ad-targeting tech, but just to recap: App publishers onboard these tools in order to monetize their product. And from an app developer’s (and Inmobi’s) standpoint, the name of the game here is hoovering up as much data as possible, since well-targeted ads tend to earn these devs a higher payout. And when there are estimated to be more than 11,000 apps—including more than a fair share of fitness apps—within Inmobi’s network, it’s not hard to imagine this company having a pretty clear picture of what the average health enthusiast tends to download, where they go to the gym, and where they buy groceries.
The issue here (at least as far as Apple and Google concerned) is that while Inmobi can give a good picture of the type of person downloading fitness apps for the new year, it can’t always reliably track whether that app user gave up and deleted the app. This hasn’t stopped a ton of major adtech players (including Facebook) from trying to get that data through a well-known loophole in the iOS push notification system. As Bloomberg reported back in 2018, Apple lets app developers deliver silent push notifications so they can, say, issue an app update without needlessly pinging the person who downloaded it. It turns out that Google’s hardware can do the same.
What these ad companies figured out, to Apple and Google’s chagrin, is that by jerry-rigging an app to regularly run these notifications—and tracking if they fail to be delivered—they could estimate whether a certain app was uninstalled.
The issues here are twofold. First, I think everyone can agree that push notifications kind of suck, and the mute button is never a bad idea. But when you mute those notifications, it turns out that these silent pings are blocked as well. I’m pretty sure I have notifications muted for just about every app on my phone, which means that to these companies, I just love downloading apps only to delete them immediately (I promise I don’t).
The second wrinkle is that this entire premise very obviously violates Apple’s review guidelines for app developers. Using these pings to traffic “advertising, promotions, or direct marketing purposes,” as Apple puts it, is an easy way to get your app blacklisted from its network. But that doesn’t mean devs aren’t still doing it.
Of course, this approach also doesn’t take into account the apps that we all download but pretty much ignore until we want to free up some space—something that I’m admittedly extremely guilty of. My fellow app hoarders can probably attest to the fact that downloading a fitness app and being tagged as a “fitness enthusiast” are two very different things.
Part of the reason that companies like Inmobi like to hoover up as much data as possible is because—as wild as it sounds—data targeting isn’t always that accurate. Cross-referencing whether someone, say, downloaded a fitness app and also walked into a gym recently is a way to “check their work” in a certain sense. But even this isn’t perfect; when the major data broker Dstillery promises its partners that it has an eye on folks that are promising to get fit for the new year, that’s an insight that largely relies on the people stepping foot into gyms in the first place.
I’m gonna let you in on a little secret here: geolocation data isn’t always that great either, and even data-hoovering giants like Google have been known to flub things on this front from time to time. How does a company really know that I walked by the front door of a SoulCycle in my neighborhood, but didn’t actually stop inside? Retailers can circumvent this sort of issue with some stealthily placed bluetooth beacons that pretty much watch every aisle you walk down, but from what I can tell, gyms haven’t really gotten on board with the concept of a beacon-laden workout. Plus, for now, a lot of people still aren’t able to actually go to a gym thanks to this pesky pandemic.
The answer to any adtech quandary is always just to collect more data: Oracle’s grab bag of new year resolution-ers is one that’s partially based on your point-of-sale data—people that buy a ton of kale and a Peloton bike get flagged as resolving to lose weight, for example. But I know a ton of folks—myself included—that are guilty of binging on workout gear that they use maybe once or twice, total. I try to go running semi-frequently, which means that I have a pretty sizable stock of leggings, sweatpants, and other sorts of workout sundry. But at the start of the pandemic, I became the kind of person who used this gear less for working out, and more for hours-long reality TV binge sessions.
Sure, marketers could try to pull more data from more sources to try to discern which kind of leggings-wearer I actually am, but that’s kind of missing the point.
For all of the garbage that 2020 threw our way, I think we can leave with the knowledge that this was the year consumers finally got the big tech companies to care about their creepy practices. In the coming year, adtech players are going to see some degree of data throttling thanks to the upcoming changes to Apple’s hardware and—fingers crossed—Google’s cookie crackdown in its own browsers. Researchers and reporters have come up with their own tools to tamper down tracking as well.
After enough red flags, the adtech industry started to care too, at least sort of. They came up with new ways to word some of their more invasive practices, or started pitching new sources of data that would either be less impacted by the landscape’s shift or wouldn’t be hurt at all. Whenever I confronted them about how utterly scummy they were being for the sake of the bottom line, they told me that in spite of literally all evidence to the contrary, consumers actually prefer personalized ads, or that they aren’t smart enough to actually know what they want. And what they want, apparently, is to be targeted with ads that make them feel like an utter failure.
You learn a lot of things about yourself during a pandemic, and in my case, that meant grappling with the fact that there’s only so much grief I can comprehend before any empathy I might have had starts to blur into something less crushing. More eloquent reporters have pointed out that, in fact, I wasn’t alone, and that the entire country was going through a “crisis of imagination.” Tech reporters might also call it a crisis of scale—and one that, as we’ve seen just every time before—that seems largely ignored for the sake of profit.
While I can’t promise that I’ll be any more empathic in 2021, my own tiny resolution is to at least try listening more. For its own sake, I hope the data industry does the same.