The diapers ad that shows up on your computer when you are expecting a child. The coupon on your smartphone for a fast-food chain you just walked past. The sneaker offer appearing in your mailbox after you sign up to run a race.
For years, marketers and technology companies have crept further into the homes and habits of Americans, arguing all the while that there is a fair and voluntary exchange taking place. The more we know about you, the argument goes, the more we can show you products you actually want instead of ads that just annoy you. Consumers, they say, are happily trading very specific information about their lives in order to receive this kind of personalized advertising and marketing — relevant ads, as the industry calls them.
Joseph Turow, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, has studied the topic for years and vigorously disagrees with that interpretation. Research by Professor Turow and his colleagues has found that most Americans give up data for relevant ads not because of convenience, but resignation. Rather than participating in a rational exchange, he argues, consumers are giving up their personal information with “a feeling of futility.”
“People are very uncomfortable with surveillance, but they don’t know what to do,” Professor Turow said about the research, which involved a telephone survey of about 1,500 people across the country this year and in 2015. “In the real world, not having a frequent shopper card at the supermarket means you’re going to lose 15 to 20 percent on purchases. It’s