Thoughts on advertising in the modern age

I read an interesting article on The Verge yesterday titled “Teens can’t tell the difference between Google ads and search results” which I highly recommend reading.

The title of the article does sum it up quite well, but it’s pretty scary to see the numbers:

  • 69 percent of 12-15 year olds didn’t realise which search results were ads;
  • 19 percent believed that if something was listed in a search result then it must be true;
  • 54 percent weren’t sure if Google was funded by advertising revenue;
  • and 53 percent were unaware that video bloggers might be paid to endorse products.

Advertising is nothing new, and I believe that if this study was run 25 years ago a similar percentage of people would have failed to recognise paid promotions in magazines that come in the form of “advertorials”. This is likely also true of paid endorsements within editorial content or other media.

Advertisers have been trying to find ways for years to blur the line between legitimate content and adverts, and it certainly rams home the necessity of full disclosure by content providers of any and all paid endorsements, as well as clear labelling of advertising on websites.

However it made me think about raising children, not that I have any, and if I do end up having children, how would I approach educating my kids about:

  1. awareness of advertising;
  2. the importance of fact checking;
  3. understanding the profiling process that happens with internet users by advertising companies on the internet;
  4. and, the responsibility of bringing a child to independence with a minimal profile having already been compiled on them.

I think, given my technological background, the first three points are things of which I could ensure a solid understanding. The fourth point jumped out at me as one of great importance though. Whilst I myself am old enough and have clearly consented to the trade-off of convenience in return for data silo-ing and advertising profile building, I think it’s important to not make that same decision for our children. But getting a child to adulthood without having some sort of profile already built on their likes, dislikes and so on could, in this age, actually turn out to be very difficult.

That price of convenience exists everywhere and in numerous applications that people use and assume you or your child will also use every day. Whether it’s a social network, a mobile phone, or using a search engine, the default usage which most of us engage in results in the construction of a profile. The old axiom is that if it’s free, then you are the product being sold to advertisers. Making decisions to avoid this sort of profiling inevitably results in trade-offs. This would probably mean things like:

  • not using most search engines (something like might be one of the few non-tracking search engines);
  • not using a mobile phone with an OS like iOS, Android, FireOS, Windows etc. Things like Sailfish, Firefox OS, or Ubuntu phones might be more private options.
  • paying for your email provider (AND checking their terms and conditions)
  • not using social networks, or using them anonymously and in private browser sessions – for example, once you’re logged into Facebook they can track what websites you visit when those websites have a ‘like’ button on their pages. Inadvertently you’re allowing Facebook to build up a huge profile on your browsing habits, and of course it’s not just Facebook that do this.

This list could go on and on. Ultimately it’s not easy. And whilst I’m currently in a position where I’ve accepted the convenience in return for gifting my profile to numerous internet companies, I think I would be a lot more cautious in how I bring my offspring into the world. At least until they’re at a point where they can responsibly make a decision about that trade-off of personal data vs convenience.

If you’re interested in reading more about how to protect your privacy online there are a few articles listed below.

One thing that can be very revealing is the Ghostery browser extension which shows you exactly what tracking is occurring on each website you visit. You can install the extension here: