Online advertising is a fascinating thing. The layers of personalization and customization behind online ads (and the personal data that drives these) powers a large chunk of the tech industry. In ads on some social media platforms, sophisticated math generates hundreds or thousands of variations of an ad, learns which versions people look at or click on the most, and prioritizes those all automatically.
In my case, I don’t experience a lot of advertising, online or not; living in the Yukon and not owning a TV, there aren’t a lot of ads that I see on a regular basis. (“Experience” might not be the right word, if you’re not a fan of ads; maybe “exposed to” as in radiation or “confronted by” as in a barrier to your destination are better verbs!)
It’s an industry I find really interesting, and I’m a big fan of efforts to “reverse analyze” advertising (as everyday people on the receiving end of it). Paul Wells’ #sawanad effort from Canadian political campaigns a few years back is a neat crowd-sourced example of this.
When it comes to online ads, I don’t see a lot of them either; I use an adblocker browser extension (uBlock Origin, which I’d recommend enthusiastically to everyone using Chrome or using Firefox). Using adblockers eliminates practically all online ads and web tracking, improves the security of your computer, and speeds up your internet considerably as a result.
The only exception – where I do see ads on a regular basis – is within the mobile apps on my phone, namely, Twitter, which (as you can guess!) I use a lot. There isn’t an easy way to block ads in native mobile apps, like Twitter or Instagram.
Beginning in October 2019, right around the time that Heather and I moved to Whitehorse, I noticed that almost all of the ads I saw on Twitter were from the same company. Namely, IBM, the information technology company that frequently works with the Canadian government. What was striking wasn’t the ads themselves, so much as the frequency – anecdotally around 19 out of every 20 ads that I saw on Twitter were IBM ads, for more than a year.
Below is a series of screenshots of these ads, collected between October 2019 and October 2020. It makes sense that I’m in the target demographic for these ads (given that I work in technology in the public service), and I wonder how much of an impact advertising like this has on government IT decisions. (In similar ways, I wonder how much of an impact the advertisements for defence contractors, shipbuilders, and payroll software makers on billboards in the Ottawa airport have!) None of this is a criticism of IBM or any of these companies, which are well within their rights to advertise their products and services. But it’s a question for public servants, of what influences we’re exposed to and how we respond to those.
IBM ads on Twitter, October 2019 to October 2020
As seen from my own Twitter feed, using the Android and iOS Twitter apps. Adjacent tweets and usernames were blurred out. Note that these images (three composite files) might take some time to load. See a combined image here (9.3MB).