Each Friday in Not Fit for Dinner, C. Ryan Knight explores political issues and the preconceptions guiding our understanding of and responses to them.

Don’t be surprised if the political campaign ads you see in the coming months feel eerily focused on your interests and beliefs. Welcome to the age of what’s known as microtargeting—an age I wish weren’t here.

Microtargeting is a digital campaign strategy that presents specific advertisements to viewers based on their interests. Campaign groups discover what ads to present to viewers based on data collected about each viewers’ online and offline activities: shopping habits, websites visited, voting history, tweets, etc.

The practice of microtargeting first became prominent during the 2000 presidential race. A consulting firm known as Target Point approached Karl Rove, George W. Bush’s senior advisor, with the idea. And the strategy works: some attribute Bush’s re-election in 2004 due in part to microtargeting’s having driven conservatives opposed gay marriage to the polls.

If this practice disturbs you, making you feel like marketers and campaign staffs are violating your privacy, you’re not alone. A group of five researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California, Berkeley, found that 66% of Americans surveyed dislike this emerging practice of microtargeting. Also, over half the survey participants favored laws regulating and restricting the practices of microtargeting.

The researchers found unmistakable conclusions from their study:

It is hard to escape the conclusion that our survey is tapping into a deep concern by Americans that marketers’ tailoring of ads for them and various forms of tracking that informs those personalizations are wrong. … Whatever the reasons, our findings suggest that if Americans could vote on behavioral targeting today, they would shut it down. The findings also suggest that marketers and government policymakers may be faced with a backlash if Americans were to organize around complaints that the laws they think protect them from the sale of their data actually don’t exist.

Here is not the place to advocate or initiate social action for legislation against microtargeting (though I would admittedly support such legislation). I do, however, think it’s fair to say that we can expect to see either strong protests against these practices in defense of personal privacy, or an unprecedented attitude of resignation in this digital age of data collection, piracy, hacking, and the likes.

Since microtargeting is here to stay (for the time being, at least), it’s vitally important to practice careful consumption of news (which I wrote about last month) as personally tailored advertisements appear before you. It’s no surprise that the campaign ads directed at you for candidates you’re likely to vote for will try to persuade you by pulling heartstrings. Take, for instance, President Obama’s ad addressing rural Americans or Romney’s ad discussing small business. Campaign groups hope to win people’s votes by featuring their demographics in commercials. While this may be flattering, it’s important for viewers not to hastily commit to a candidate based on a commercial.

We should also keep in mind that microtargeting puts us in danger of voting blindly for a candidate. The advertisements directed toward us through microtargeting may not be false, but they certainly do not contain the whole story about a candidate’s stance on various issues. The issues America faces today are serious and complex, and viewers of short ads by candidates have nowhere near enough material to make an informed decision on whom they wish to vote for to address these issues.

Paul instructed Colossians to guard themselves against being overcome by misleading and deceptive ideas (Colossians 2.8). Such a warning seems apt in light of microtargeting. If we allow them to, campaign staffs will use microtargeting to make our political decisions for us. The task at hand is to be all the more watchful, to be aware of and resist persuasive tactics meant to rush us to decide where we stand, and to make careful decisions based on further and more trustworthy evidence.


  1. Though I’m not sure if this is “micro targeting”, here is an illustration of how selective editing (of facts and/or video) is used to support (or in this case, denounce) a particular candidate: http://www.opposingviews.com/i/politics/2012-election/video-his-own-romney-ad-star-jack-gilchrist-got-1-million-government-loans

    I think “soundbite” campaigning is akin to “micro targeting” in that they attempt to influence the vote through partial information. If some candidate “micro targets” me according to my interests, all he or she can do is appeal to my self-interest, not to necessarily what is best for the country, or (heaven forbid!) what they really believe.

    So, if I love cats and Mitt Romney loves cats, should I vote for him? Aren’t there more substantial issues than my shopping profile or pictures I post on Facebook?

  2. When I teach argumentative fallacies in my freshman composition classes (a unit which often falls in October), I encourage my students to open their books and watch campaign ads to track the number of fallacies that can be crammed into 30 seconds (So easy, you can do it at home!). Honestly, I have reservations about whether any coherent, logical argument can be made in the space of a televised ad or YouTube spot. Microtargeting can be particularly insidious in its augmentation of emotional fallacies, since it can play directly into what we are already inclined to feel. I think democracy has always been like this, but the practice you discuss, Ryan, somehow seems to make it just that much worse.

    Geoffrey R.

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