In the film Minority Report, Tom Cruise walks through a future (2054, to be specific), as his character, John Anderton, is bombarded by personalised advertisements. Triggered by iris scans as he strolls past, they chatter endlessly: “John Anderton! You could use a Guinness right about now!” and “Get away, John Anderton. Forget your troubles,” as logos for Lexus and American Express bob into his eyeline.
It didn’t take until 2054 for this sci-fi vision to be realised. We have all looked up cheap flights for city breaks or dragged items into online-shopping carts, only to find them following us around the internet for days afterwards. OK, there isn’t iris scanning and the adverts aren’t following us down the street, but the chatter seems just as endless as Minority Report imagined, back in 2002.
Stealthy online targeting is why you see videos of women excitedly recommending tampons or watching lines appear in the windows of pregnancy tests – we are most often targeted based on our gender, age, language and location. And this is also the reason why, as women, the internet sees us as potential dieters.
But what does it mean when these adverts appear online, rather than in traditional media? Is there a difference? And, if there is, could they be more harmful? A regular advert on my timeline is a “healthy living” app, which shows me cartoon illustrations of women’s imperfect bodies with red circles indicating bloated tummies and wobbly thighs. The imperfect bodies look a lot like mine.
Eleanor Bougie-Smith, digital-marketing manager at SocialB, says that our social networks are particularly rife with these products because that is where we live out our fantasies of a perfect lifestyle: “With the weight-loss industry, especially with buzzwords like 'clean eating' and 'wellbeing', that is something that has a very social aspect and it really boomed on Instagram. Really, I think that’s kind of the skin that they’re trying to get under there – look at all these beautiful people who get to travel the world, be sponsored by brands and get paid a lot, and you could be like them.”
In other words, the beautiful people are on social media and so are the people who want to emulate them – it’s a breeding ground for self-esteem issues and potential weight-loss customers.
But one major problem with all the fit teas, diet pills, waist trainers, slimming smoothies and appetite-suppressant lollipops is the affordability of online advertising. No longer do you need a huge budget to fund a billboard in the perfect location
Furthermore, on social media, adverts can operate more stealthily than they ever could in the real world. They do not involve brash billboards or incessant jingles; they are a lot more subtle. Wendy Hein, a lecturer at Birkbeck, University of London, whose research focuses on how we become gendered consumers, says that we haven’t yet mastered how to process adverts online: “We’ve become very savvy in terms of reading ads, in terms of persuasive messages. We know normally exactly what kind of genre is in front of us and we can quickly say, ‘This is an ad,’ and ‘This isn’t an ad.’ But online, something new can pop up every day. In many ways, this is still uncharted territory. We’re not necessarily tuned in to that yet; we are not all that socialised to know immediately that something is just an ad – that we can brush it aside and zone out of it.”
Currently, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is working to try to establish new rules and regulations regarding how adverts appear online. It regulates digital marketing in the exact same way as traditional advertising. When it comes to weight-loss products, for example, any product that doesn’t meet legal standards of performance (unsafe diet pills, for example) automatically doesn’t meet ASA standards. And in the grey areas, with products that technically work but maybe have questionable moral intentions, the ASA has a social-responsibility clause that allows it to work quite broadly regarding ethics on a case-by-case basis.
But it’s an ongoing process, as the goalposts are constantly being shifted. In traditional advertising, a billboard does not need to shout “This is an ad!” at consumers, because it is obvious. Online, adverts are often designed to look almost identical to regular posts, merging seamlessly into our timelines.
And this is where targeting comes in. One brand of a supposed “weight-loss vest” (remaining unnamed in this article, to avoid amplifying their questionable message) is seemingly omnipresent on my Twitter timeline – and those of several other Pool staffers. The promoted tweets promise that it will help get rid of excess pounds by minimising appetite and controlling hunger. It is available from a size UK 4-6. It is essentially a corset.
Presumably, I see this because my demographic data shows me to be a 30-year-old woman online, and therefore it’s pretty much nailed on that I have body-image issues. That, for marketers, is a “goldmine”, according to Hein, because, “it means that they can send you information specifically targeted around the websites you’ve visited. They say it’s great because they can ‘tailor this to your specific needs’, as you will often hear in marketing speak. But from a consumer perspective, it can also be quite predatory and exploitative.”
Reviewing the weight-loss vest brand’s Twitter activity, it has under 1,500 followers and a number of unhappy customers who have not received their orders – not exactly a big hitter. But one major problem with all the fit teas, diet pills, waist trainers, slimming smoothies and appetite-suppressant lollipops is the affordability of online advertising. No longer do you need a huge budget to fund a billboard in the perfect location. Instead, Bougie-Smith explains, it’s a bargain.
For centuries, the weight-loss industry has targeted women’s insecurities and it works because of just how pervasive passive women are in popular culture; basically, we are used to seeing – critiquing – women’s bodies
“It’s massively cheaper than traditional advertising. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter – they try to be very transparent about their their advertising guidelines, but it’s kind of up to the person setting [ads] up to go and look for those guidelines,” she says. “There’s not much guidance when you’re on your own.”
Even a backlash might be worth it for a small brand looking to boost their name recognition. Hein says that the angry response to Protein World’s Are You Beach Body Ready? campaign was invaluable publicity for the brand: “The clutter in the ad world is so massive that it takes so much more to push through that. They need to find all sorts of ways to generate shock and awe. So, what do they do? You put women on a leash in ads, you stand on them, you squeeze them, you pinch them. You know it’s going to create a world of outrage, all the feminists are going to be up in arms and that’s great, lovely [for the brands].”
For example, the weight-loss vest falls into a category of small business that a relatively new advertising service on Twitter has been designed for: Twitter Promote Mode. It costs £79 per month and is aimed at brands with fewer than 2,000 followers. Instead of having to create an expensive ad campaign, Twitter will just promote regular tweets to a targeted audience based on interests or location.
Basically, the affordability of online advertising means many more companies with much smaller budgets, little marketing experience, dubious products and damaging messaging can actually reach a relatively wide group of potential customers.
As Matthew Wilson, spokesperson for the ASA, explains, it is also increasingly easy, as well as affordable, to promote yourself or your business: “There is no minimum entry point for advertising online. You or I could become an advertiser this afternoon. And that’s great in terms of being democratic, and very beneficial for small business, but it means that there are a lot of people advertising online who may not be aware of the ASA and have no experience in marketing.”
Cheap, accessible and subtle targeted advertising on social media, a space in which we are already vulnerable, is able to compound and reinforce those age-old messages about women
What Hein calls “marketing predatorship” – the tried-and-tested practice of dragging a consumer down before picking them back up again – can be particularly insidious online. She explains: “Most of the time when we look at these things, we are completely alone. We are not in company, we can't laugh it off, we can’t discuss it with somebody else… you internalise these things so much more silently. It’s like somebody taking you back into the backyard and shooting you.”
Every expert interviewed for this article used the word “bombardment” at some point, referring to seeing repeated ads. Bougie-Smith explains that it may not always be the same advert, but the result of A/B testing where almost identical adverts are shown to the same consumer demographics to see which performs better. The changes are unlikely to register consciously to a consumer scrolling through a feed – other than reinforcing yet another message that women are inadequate.
Not only this, but our interactions online do not take place in a physical space. Hein calls it “the massive illusion of online, because you are not there in body and soul”. In real life, we might negatively compare ourselves to other people, but at least those bodies and ours are real. Online, the bodies – both belonging to others and our own – exist only on our screens and in our minds.
For women, this is doubling down on the messages we have long been receiving from advertisers. For centuries, the weight-loss industry has targeted women’s insecurities and it works because of just how pervasive passive women are in popular culture; basically, we are used to seeing – critiquing – women’s bodies.
“The way we’ve come to see women in ads is that we’ve learned that women are OK to be objectified. Women become the object. Men are the subject. Women are in the background; they’re the decoration,” says Hein. “All of this, over time, is filtering into our socialisation of looking at images; it makes us also look at other women, and each other. We all judge other women a lot more than a lot of men probably would. It’s not just ads – we all come to scrutinise ourselves and other women’s bodies a lot more.”
For Hein, the long-term solution is that “we need to unlearn how we read ads and we need to become much more switched on with how we deal with ads online". She would also like to see regulation of the kinds of images that are targeted towards women and for brands to acknowledge the actual needs of their female consumers, rather than those needs as perceived by men. The problem is that, for decades, this kind of advertising – that shames women – has worked. It has made a lot of people very rich. However advanced the technology gets, the stereotypes stubbornly remain the same.
And, with online advertising, that becomes even more dangerous because these adverts can become actionable immediately. Unlike with an advert on the TV or at a bus stop, you can click on something and buy it there and then. The immediacy means that, even if those adverts are selling dodgy products or do not meet ASA standards (deliberately or through ineptitude), the damage has already been done. Products have already been ordered and messaging has already been absorbed. Even if complaints are made, brands are reprimanded and products are recalled, the idea that women must look a certain way has already permeated the consciousness of consumers.
Cheap, accessible and subtle targeted advertising on social media, a space in which we are already vulnerable, is able to compound and reinforce those age-old messages about women – the bodies wound in measuring tape, the fingers pinching rolls of flesh and the impossibly sucked-in waists – more effectively than ever before.