You’ve spend some time researching a product on your phone, then you open your laptop and find ads for that product plastered all over the place. This has happened to everyone—it’s called targeted advertising, and there are steps you can take to reduce its effect on you.
What Is Targeted Advertising?
You can probably assume as much by its name, but targeted advertising is a way for advertisers to target potential consumers based on a number of factors. These include race, sex, age, level of education, income level, employment, economic status, personality, attitudes, opinions, lifestyle, and other interests. Yeah, it gets pretty detailed.
But wait, it gets even deeper. There are various types of targeted advertising: search engine, social, mobile, content, time, technical, sociodemographic, geographical/location-based, behavioral, and retargeting.
Now, a lot of these different types of targeted ads work in tandem to form a bigger picture—and what you ultimately see is companies “watching” you, and serving ads relevant to what you’ve done online. I get that question a lot, in fact: how do they know?! Some users are freaked out by the concept of it, and rightfully so. It’s definitely concerning to think that someone is watching your every move on the web—and even more so when you think of it as “someone.”
But that’s not really what’s happening here: no one is sitting there, watching your every move. This data is collected anonymously, by a machine, and not tied to your identity—at least, not specifically. Instead, it’s just a collection of data about “some iPad user” that likes these things, shops at these stores, frequents these web sites, and so on. They just don’t know “some iPad user” is John Smith at 1234 Main Street.
All that said, there is a muddier side to this. While that data is anonymous, there’s so much of it that if some nefarious entity got access to it, they could potentially connect the dots to figure out who you are—but that would require them wanting to know who you are, and unless you’re a public figure, that seems unlikely.
Thankfully, there are measures you can take to lessen the impact it has on you if you’re rattled by this sort of tracking,
How to Take Control of Targeted Ad Content
If you’re one of the millions of people out there bothered by this practice, there are steps you can take to better control it. You can’t stop it completely, unfortunately, but you can do more to remove some of your data from the practice.
The Blanket Approach: Opt Out with WebChoices
Like with most things of this nature, there’s a consortium called the Digital Advertising Alliance that aims to help control ad content around the web, especially when it comes to how it affects you are a user and person.
The DAA has regulatory principles in place, and while companies have to elect to participate, those that do also allow users to opt out. Very few people know how to do this, but fortunately, the DAA makes it easy by offering a tool called WebChoices that performs a quick scan of your computer or mobile devices for 134 different companies’ targeting practices to see if they affect your machines.
To check it out, head to the YourAdChoices WebChoices portal and let it do its thing. The scan will run relatively quickly, and when it’s finished, a popup will appear with some details.
Click continue to see the actual list, which is a pretty long one. Scroll through the list and you’ll see some pretty big names here, like Google, Facebook, and Twitter…just to name a few.
You can opt out of these ads by checking the Opt Out box on the right side, or just click the “select all” link at the top to toggle all the options.
When you’re finished, just click the Submit Your Choices button at the bottom. For more info, you can also click the Understand Your Choices button for a breakdown of what all this means.
With all that said, there’s something you need to understand here: this does not opt you out of ads. You will still see ads—they just won’t be personalized ads based on your activity.
Similarly, anything you opt out of here is only applicable to the browser you’re currently using. So if you have a desktop computer, a laptop, and a tablet, you’ll need to go through this process on all of them. AdChoices is also offered in app form—cleverly called AppChoices—for both Android and iOS. Use this on mobile devices.
Opt Out on a Per-Network Basis
Opting out of personalized ads using the AdChoices tool is just one step—you can also opt out of these types of ads (at least take control of them) on a per-network basis in many cases. Here are a few of the big ones.
How to Control Facebook Ads
Facebook may be considered the “worst” of the bunch for ads—mostly because it’s the one that freaks people out the most, I assume.
The good news is that you can pretty easily control the ads you see on Facebook. To access this info, open Facebook, head to Settings, then choose Ads.
On mobile, that’s under Menu > Settings > Account Settings > Ads.
From there, you can see a slew of information related to your ad content here, including your interests (and how they relate to ads), what advertisers can see about you, advertisers you’ve interacted with (read: clicked on), ad settings, and a test feature for hiding particular ad topics for a specific amount of time.
Clicking or tapping each category will give you more details about said category, thus allowing you customize your ad experience. You can use the Your Interests section to remove content you don’t want to see ads related to, for example.
The Your Information section will let you toggle info that advertisers can see about you—like marital status, employer, and the like. You can also remove specific topics under the “Your Categories” section.
Under the Ad Settings option, you’ll control what ads show up for you, including ads that are tracked from other places online. The first option under this menu—“Ads based on your use of websites and apps”—is what bothers most people, because it’s what allows Facebook to see what you shop and search for. Disable this to stop seeing ads for products you’ve recently searched for. There are more options in this menu, too, but that’s the big one for most people.
Finally, I find the Hide Ad Topics option to be the most interesting, because it allows you to hide ads for alcohol or parenting for six months, one years, or permanently. This is presumably for users fighting a addiction in the case of alcohol, though the parenting section isn’t as clear—perhaps this is for parents who have lost a child and don’t want to see parenting content to further deepen that wound.
Also, if you want to learn more about how Facebook ads work, there’s a link at the bottom for that. Click away, you inquisitive soul.
How to Control Google Ads
Google is the world’s biggest ad company, and all of your personalized options come back to your Google account. Since we already have a detailed guide on controlling these ads, we’ll just give a quick and dirty overview here.
First, to see your Google ad settings, head over to your Ads Settings page. This is the hub for all your Google ad settings, which offers a quick way to opt out of personalized ads by toggling that option off at the top.
Google also recently introduced a way to opt out of Reminder Ads, though that seems to be still be rolling out on an account basis, so not everyone has it yet. You can read more about this option in Google’s blog post about the feature.
How to Control Twitter Ads
Twitter’s ad settings are a lot more straightforward than some of the other networks, though they’re a bit harder to find. They’re tucked away in the Personalization menu, which you can only get to on the web. To find it, click on your profile picture, choose Settings and Privacy, then Privacy and Safety.
From there, find the Personalization and Data option, and click Edit beside “Allow All.”
All the options here are simple on or off switches—just read each one, then opt out as you see fit. Super simple.
How to Control Ads on Instagram
Out of all the networks listed here, Instagram is the only one without dedicated ad settings. Instead, you have to interact with ads on a per-ad basis. It’s kind of stupid.
As you scroll through your Instagram feed, you’ll see sponsored content with the “Sponsored” label. Much of this content may even be from pages you already follow. But if you’re not into that particular ad, tap the three dots in the upper corner to display its ad settings.
From there, you can hide or block the ad. Once you hide it, you’ll get a quick three-question box in its place that lets you tell Instagram why you hid the ad. But that’s it—that’s all you get.
You can read more about Instagram ads here.
I said this earlier, but feel like it can’t be overstated: none of these options will get rid of your ads. You will always see ads, because people need to make money, and ads are how websites make dollar-dollar bills.
That’s why I always implore people to give websites the innocent-until-proven-guilty approach when it comes to ads—that is, allow ads until they become intrusive. If you’re getting popups every time you try to read something, then by all means, block ads on that site. But if the ads are just passively on the sidelines, let ’em be—it’s how most sites (including the one you’re reading right now) make enough money. Without that, they wouldn’t exist, and you’d have to go look up silly cat photos in books at the local library.
And if targeted advertising bothers you, simply opt out of it where you can instead of blocking ads outright. It still allows the websites and networks you love to make money, all without you feeling like someone is standing over your shoulder.