How do online advertising and marketing techniques work

Relevant literature on online advertising and marketing targeting children

  • British Heart Foundation and the Children’s Food Campaign (2011) The 21st century gingerbread house: How companies are marketing junk food to children online.
    • “The internet enables advertisers to capture children’s attention for longer periods of time compared with traditional forms of advertising. By developing integrated marketing strategies across a variety of media, including websites for children that are playful and highly interactive, companies are able to immerse children in their brands. Social media channels enable companies to build relationships on a one-on-one basis by communicating directly with children. Social sites also extend marketing messages into children’s social media feeds when they opt to ‘follow’ or interact with a brand – effectively expanding their reach to the child’s social network.”
  • A.D. Cheyne, L. Dorfman, et al. (2013). “Marketing Sugary Cereals to Children in the Digital Age: A Content Analysis of 17 Child-Targeted Websites.” Journal of Health Communication (1): 20.
    • Compared to traditional marketing, online marketing is perceived to be offering children an ‘immersive environment’  where children are exposed to the advertised brands or products through a variety of multimedia formats, some of which allow the child to interact with the brand. Based on a content analysis of 17 websites targeted at children, researchers argued that there was a positive relationship between immersive environments and popularity and engagement. The researchers found that websites with more content and higher levels of multimedia content, interactivity and personalisation had higher visitor numbers and that children engaged for longer with the content on these websites.
  • V. Rideout, (2014). Advertising to Children and Teens: Current Practices. A Research Brief. San Francisco, Common Sense Media.
    • The interactive nature of the internet is believed to make children’s engagement with marketing material more meaningful, entertaining and personal. Studies with children have found that interactive advertising content can establish positive brand associations.

Relevant literature on habit-forming

  • The neurotransmitter dopamine is crucial in the process of habit-forming. “[The] dopamine process, which is common in all insects and mammals, is, [according to Wolfram] Schultz [a professor of neuroscience at Cambridge University], … at the basis of learning: it anticipates a reward to an action and, if the reward is met, enables the behaviour to become a habit, or, if there’s a discrepancy, to be adapted. … Every habit-forming drug, from amphetamines to cocaine, from nicotine to alcohol, affects the dopamine system by dispersing many times more dopamine than usual. The use of these drugs overruns the neural pathways connecting the reward circuit to the prefrontal cortex, which helps people to tame impulses. The more an addict uses a drug, the harder it becomes to stop. These unnaturally large rewards are not filtered in the brain – they go directly into the brain and overstimulate, which can generate addiction,” explains [professor Natasha Dow] Shultz. “When that happens, we lose our willpower. Evolution has not prepared our brains for these drugs, so they become overwhelmed and screwed up. We are abusing a useful and necessary system. We shouldn’t do it, even though we can.”
  • Charles Duhigg (2012) The power of habit.
    • Duhigg describes the process of habit formation. It starts with a cue, a sensation that triggers an action. What follows in a routine that starts with a spike in brain activity and then is executed on automatic pilot. After the routine is done, a reward is felt: “a physical stimulation”. Duhigg presents a framework to change the habit. Step one is to identify the routine: “it’s the behavior you want to change”. Step two is to experiment with rewards. “By experimenting with different rewards, you can isolate what you are actually craving, which is essential in redesigning the habit.” Step three: isolate the cue: “identify categories of behaviors ahead of time to scrutinize in order to see patterns.” Five possible categories need to be taken into account: location, time, emotional state, other people, and immediately preceding action. The fourth step is to have a plan: “you can change to a better routine by planning for the cue and choosing a behavior that delivers the reward you are craving.” Duhigg concludes: “once you understand how a habit operates – once you diagnose the cue, the routine and the reward – you gain power over it.”
  • Social media addiction-like mechanisms.
    • According to Chamath Palihapitiya, former vice-president Facebook of user growth, social networks have created “short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops” that lead to the destruction of “how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth.” (Context here) Before Palihapitiya also former Facebook President Sean Parker admitted that when Facebook was being developed the objective was: “How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?” The instruments used were features like the “like” button that provide “a little dopamine hit”. He stated: “It’s a social-validation feedback loop … exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.” He added: “It literally changes your relationship with society, with each other. It probably interferes with productivity in weird ways. God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains”.
    • Before there were the developers of the Facebook “like” button who started defending themselves against the affirmative feedback loops evoked by the button they themselves created.
    • Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff commented: “I think that, for sure, technology has addictive qualities that we have to address, and that product designers are working to make those products more addictive, and we need to rein that back as much as possible … Financial services, consumer product goods, food — in technology, the government’s going to have to be involved. There is some regulation but there probably will have to be more.”
    • Roger McNamee, early investor in Facebook and mentor of Mark Zuckerberg, wrote: “I want them to address the harm the platform has caused through addiction and exploitation by bad actors.” According to McNamee and many technicians the addiction effect was never created intentionally.
    • The Center for Humane Technology, a group of former Google and Facebook employees,  started an advocacy group promoting: “reversing the digital attention crisis and realigning technology with humanity’s best interests.” It states: “What began as a race to monetize our attention is now eroding the pillars of our society: mental health, democracy, social relationships, and our children.” It explains: “Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Google have produced amazing products that have benefited the world enormously. But these companies are also caught in a zero-sum race for our finite attention, which they need to make money. Constantly forced to outperform their competitors, they must use increasingly persuasive techniques to keep us glued. They point AI-driven news feeds, content, and notifications at our minds, continually learning how to hook us more deeply—from our own behavior.” It concludes: “These are not neutral products. They are part of a system designed to addict us.”
    • Specifically concerning children the Center for Humane Technology claims: “The race to keep children’s attention trains them to replace their self-worth with likes, encourages comparison with others, and creates the constant illusion of missing out.”
    • The Center for Human Technology and Common Sense have partnered up in the campaign Truth about Tech: “Together with industry experts, health professionals, and researchers, we are advocating for technology that works in our best interests and empowering educators and families everywhere to support kids’ digital well-being. Digital well-being means:
      • Tech companies that design products that feel less addictive, support ongoing research into the impacts of technology on children’s well-being, and value people over profit.
      • Parents, teachers, and kids who are aware of the rewards and the risks of technology and practice healthy media habits together.
      • We all have the tools to become good digital citizens, with access to high-quality information outside of our filter bubbles.”
    • Common Sense states in a news item: “”Tech companies are conducting a massive, real-time experiment on our kids, and, at present, no one is really holding them accountable,” said James P. Steyer, CEO and founder of Common Sense. “Their business models often encourage them to do whatever they can to grab attention and data and then to worry about the consequences later, even though those very same consequences may at times hurt the social, emotional, and cognitive development of kids. It’s time to hold tech companies accountable for their efforts designed to target and manipulate young people. When parents learn how these companies can take advantage of our kids, they will join us in demanding the industry change its ways and improve certain practices.””
  • Nir Eyal (2014) Hooked:
    • Eyal describes in Hooked how these dopamine-driven feedback loops are created by means of habit-forming. According to him, there are four essential steps. The first step is the cue that is the actuator of behavior: the trigger. This trigger can be external or internal. External triggers can take the form of paid triggers like advertising or search engine marketing, earned triggers like favorable press mentions, relationship triggers like Facebook likes and owned triggers like an app icon on the phone screen. Internal triggers are existing user thoughts and especially negative emotion. “Feelings of boredom, loneliness, frustration, confusion, and indecisiveness often instigate a slight pain or irritation and prompts an almost instantaneous and often mindless action to quell the negative sensation.” The second step is an action that is evoked by the trigger. “To initiate action, doing must be easier than thinking.” The third step is variable reward, “in which you reward your users by solving a problem, reinforcing their motivation for the action taken in the previous phase”. Variability of the reward “increases activity in the nucleus accumbens [part of the brain’s reward center] and spikes levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine”. The rewards can be social (social reinforcement), respond to our need to acquire objects or to our drive to conquer obstacles. The fourth step is an investment. This builds on the fact that the more time and effort we invest into a product or service, the more we value it. It is an escalation of commitment. Eyal calls this model “the Hook Model”: “to create the habit, users must first use the product through multiple cycles of the Hook Model. Therefore, external triggers must be used to bring users back around again and again to start another cycle.”
    • In the Guardian the variable reward mechanism in social media is described: “It’s this that explains how the pull-to-refresh mechanism, whereby users swipe down, pause and wait to see what content appears, rapidly became one of the most addictive and ubiquitous design features in modern technology. “Each time you’re swiping down, it’s like a slot machine,” Harris says. “You don’t know what’s coming next. Sometimes it’s a beautiful photo. Sometimes it’s just an ad.” The designer who created the pull-to-refresh mechanism, first used to update Twitter feeds, is Loren Brichter, widely admired in the app-building community for his sleek and intuitive designs. Now 32, Brichter says he never intended the design to be addictive – but would not dispute the slot machine comparison. “I agree 100%,” he says.”
    • The company Dopamine Labs is specialized in creating apps to build habitual behaviour by means of randomness in congratulatory messages. The Guardian: “In one dieting service, which encourages people to track the food they eat, the company saw an 11% increase in food-tracking after integrating Dopamine Labs’ system. A microloan service saw a 14% improvement in how frequently people would pay back their loans on time or early. “An anti-cyberbullying app saw a 167% improvement in how often young people sent encouraging messages to one another by controlling when and how often and when we sent them an animated gif reward,” claims [Dopamine Labs cofounder Ramsay] Brown.”
  • BJ Fogg’s Behavior Model
    • Eyal’s model is based on BJ Fogg’s Behavior Model: “The Fogg Behavior Model shows that three elements must converge at the same moment for a behavior to occur: Motivation, Ability, and Trigger. When a behavior does not occur, at least one of those three elements is missing.”
    • Fogg believes that consumers have the power to unhook themselves. Wired adds to that: “Eyal’s next book, Indistractible, focuses on how to do that, using Fogg’s model in reverse. It takes the same three ideas—motivation, trigger, and ability—and reorients them toward ungluing us from our phones. For example, you can remove triggers from certain apps by adjusting your notification settings. (Or better yet, turn off all your push notifications.) You can decrease your ability to access Facebook by simply deleting the app from your phone.”
  • Personalization and habit-formation:
    • The Guardian describes the additional effect of personalization on habit-formation: “The techniques these companies use are not always generic: they can be algorithmically tailored to each person. An internal Facebook report leaked this year, for example, revealed that the company can identify when teens feel “insecure”, “worthless” and “need a confidence boost”. Such granular information, [Tristan] Harris adds, is “a perfect model of what buttons you can push in a particular person”.Tech companies can exploit such vulnerabilities to keep people hooked; manipulating, for example, when people receive “likes” for their posts, ensuring they arrive when an individual is likely to feel vulnerable, or in need of approval, or maybe just bored. And the very same techniques can be sold to the highest bidder. “There’s no ethics,” he says.”