It’s not unusual for ads to follow you across the internet — search for a flight ticket, say, from Delhi to Mumbai, and all you see on your browser for the next few weeks is ads from companies selling tickets from Delhi to Mumbai, and search for a product on Amazon, and all you see the same product splattered across the web wherever you look. But a new service is taking is ability to re-target customers to a somewhat scary new extreme.
The Spinner, a new ad targeting service, claims that it can help subtly change the behaviour of someone close to you by showing them specific ads on the internet. “The Spinner sends you an innocent looking link,” says its website. “This link is sent to the target via text message. When the target presses the link, the cookie connected to the link attaches itself to the target’s phone. From this point the target will be strategically bombarded with articles and media specified to the target.”
And the kind of behavioral changes that The Spinner claims it can seem to border between the unethical and something out of mind control science fiction thriller. Its most popular package is designed to get your wife to initiate sex with you. Others include getting your boyfriend to propose, while some are more benign, such as getting your parents to get you a dog, or getting a loved one to quit smoking.
How The Spinner claims to be able to achieve this is by sending the purchaser of a package an innocent-looking link. It’s now up to them to get their target (their wife, boyfriend or parents) to open the link on their computers or phones. The moment they do so, the link will drop a cookie on their devices, thus uniquely identifying them among the millions of users of the internet.
When the targeted users browse the web from that point on, they will be shown ads that will subtly aim to nudge them towards the behaviour that’s desired of them. For instance, if you’ve chosen the “Get wife to initiate sex” package, your wife will be shown articles with headlines like “5 ways to keep your husband permanently in love with you” and “3 reasons why you should initiate sex with your husband”. These articles will pop up as ads while she browses websites, and The Spinner claims will ultimately lead to the behaviour that’s desired. Each package costs $29 (Rs. 2000), and will show the targeted user 10 different articles with a maximum of 180 impressions.
This can sound creepy, but The Spinner’s underlying technology is the same as what powers most of the ads you see on the internet. While, say, MakeMyTrip targets you with ads for a specific ticket after you’ve visited their website, The Spinner does it after you’ve visited their “innocent-looking” link. This method of ad targeting is called remarketing, and is designed because it’s more likely that people buy products after they’ve already shown interest in them by visiting their website.
The Spinner, for its part, says that what it does is legal. “In today’s vast online media market the attachment of cookies to is legal. Most publishers declare that,” it says on its site. So each time you agree to a boilerplate declaration on a website saying that it shows cookies, you essentially agree to have a cookie dropped on your browser, which in turn be used to show re-targeting advertisements.
And subtle behaviour-altering ads could be yet another headache for regulators across the world, who’re already grappling with the pace with which fake news spreads on the internet. While fake news can be clearly flagged as fake or true, things could be far more hazy for articles like the ones that The Spinner claims to show. “3 reasons why you should initiate sex with your husband” isn’t an article that’s fake at face value, but repeated exposure could be used to change user behaviour. And while the behaviour that the Spinners claims to change seem to be on a personal level, it’s not hard to imagine how this could be extended into other areas, such as political campaigns and the like.
Internet advertising might look annoying, but it has been the backbone of the internet revolution. It’s only because of ads on the internet that companies like Google and Facebook can provide everything from e-mail to maps to social networking for free. But as ads become more sophisticated and more powerful, they also bring with them additional risks. And getting your wife to initiate sex with you can be only the beginning of how ads could change how humans behave the world over.