How Modern Marketing Strategies Encourage Us To Buy, Buy, Buy

July 10, 2024

We can all agree: ads are getting a tad stalker-y these days. Let’s say you’re looking to buy a new bathing suit. Peruse a few sites, look at a few options, and the next thing you know that bathing suit is following you around the Internet. It’s in your inbox, popping up in your social media feeds and making appearances on the websites you visit. Order the item or not—it doesn’t really matter. The ads persist, until you look at something else—and a new stalker takes its place.

Marketing professionals call this “personalization,” a strategy that leverages a potential customer’s buying habits, interests and demographics to serve up ads that are tailored to what they are interested in—and spending money on—right now. “More than three-quarters of consumers prefer personalized items or personalized options in their feed, as opposed to non-personalized,” says Jen Park, assistant professor of marketing and behavioural science at UBC’s Sauder School of Business. “So we know consumers like that.”

Here’s how it works: the customer enters a website, where cookies track them. Then businesses purchase ads that show them the product again … and again. “We live in a very busy world where consumers are getting bombarded with thousands of sales pitches per day. As consumers, we’ve gotten really good at filtering these pitches out,” says Rebecca Coleman, a marketer and instructor of social media marketing at the British Columbia Institute of Technology. She explains that, on average, a customer interacts with a brand eight times before a sale, which is why businesses attempt again and again to capture your attention. “It sounds kind of creepy, but it’s actually quite effective.”

Peter Pernot-Day, head of strategic and corporate affairs for North America and Europe at fashion juggernaut Shein, says there is value to targeted ads. “The idea is to try to understand who our customers are, what they’re interested in and what they resonate with, so we can tailor both our clothing and our advertising content to those needs,” he explains. “That’s one of the powers of social media. It allows us to have insights into what our customers are actually thinking, doing and want to see.”

The bottom line is that all these marketing efforts work—and well. “Algorithms and personalized marketing is hugely successful,” says Park, adding that the reason for this is, in part, because customers are so bombarded by ads that they “don’t have the bandwidth to [decipher whether] ‘is this an item that I really need at this point?’” And as overconsumption surpasses overpopulation as the greatest driver of the planet’s eco-crisis, it’s safe to say that these marketing strategies have a larger impact.

We are consuming at a breakneck pace, and the planet is paying the price. The UN warns of the threat of overconsumption and its contribution to what the organization calls the “triple planetary threat” of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution. Other organizations, too, are sounding the alarm. Population Media Center, whose aim is to build a healthier, more equitable and flourishing world through storytelling, states: “Aggressive marketing campaigns that promote conspicuous consumption fuel societal norms centered around materialism, driving individuals to consume beyond their actual needs.” It’s one factor (of many) that explains why, as per Earth Overshoot Day—which annually marks the date when humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year—eight months into the year, we will have depleted a year’s worth of the planet’s resources.

The antidote to overconsumption, of course, is to consume less. And if being stalked by potential purchases online isn’t going to help keep that credit card sheathed, there are a few things you can do. First, Canada has anti-spam laws in place that make it easier to defend against stalker ads—although the protections are flimsy. “It just requires anyone sending out these marketing emails to have people’s consent,” says Park. “And the definition of consent is very blurry.” She recommends taking the time to hit the “unsubscribe” button on marketing emails and cautions against sites that don’t give you a chance to reject cookies. “It’s just not worth it to browse through these websites that use suspicious and vague wording for how your data is going to be used.”

When federal protections aren’t cutting it, web browsers can pick up the slack. “A few years ago, Apple started giving its users more control over how websites could track cookies,” Coleman says. “You can now ask your phone and your Safari browser ‘not to track’ cookies, and that makes it difficult to retarget ads to those customers.” Soon, she says, Google’s browser will follow suit—watch for that.

“We are living in strange times where we are getting bombarded. We feel like we’re used to it, but I feel like the bubble is going to burst very soon,” Park commiserates. “As soon as we have more regulation, as soon as we find more green practices, these annoying emails should be stopped.” —Jill von Sprecken


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