Are we someone else when we lie?

[Google CEO] Eric Schmidt continued: “Our business is highly measurable. We know that if you spend X dollars on ads, you’ll get Y dollars in revenues.” At Google, Schmidt maintained, you pay only for what works.

Karmazin was horrified. He was an old fashioned advertising man, and where he came from, a Super Bowl ad cost three million dollars. Why? Because that’s how much it cost. What does it yield? Who knows. […]

In 2018, more than $273bn dollars was spent on digital ads globally, according to research firm eMarketer. Most of those ads were purchased from two companies: Google ($116bn in 2018) and Facebook ($54.5bn in 2018). […]

Picture this. Luigi’s Pizzeria hires three teenagers to hand out coupons to passersby. After a few weeks of flyering, one of the three turns out to be a marketing genius. Customers keep showing up with coupons distributed by this particular kid. The other two can’t make any sense of it: how does he do it? When they ask him, he explains: “I stand in the waiting area of the pizzeria.” […] Economists refer to this as a “selection effect.” It is crucial for advertisers to distinguish such a selection effect (people see your ad, but were already going to click, buy, register, or download) from the advertising effect (people see your ad, and that’s why they start clicking, buying, registering, downloading). […]

The online marketing world has the same strategy as Luigi’s Pizzeria and the flyer-handling teens. The benchmarks that advertising companies use – intended to measure the number of clicks, sales and downloads that occur after an ad is viewed – are fundamentally misleading. None of these benchmarks distinguish between the selection effect (clicks, purchases and downloads that are happening anyway) and the advertising effect (clicks, purchases and downloads that would not have happened without ads).

It gets worse: the brightest minds of this generation are creating algorithms which only increase the effects of selection. Consider the following: if Amazon buys clicks from Facebook and Google, the advertising platforms’ algorithms will seek out Amazon clickers. And who is most likely to click on Amazon? Presumably Amazon’s regular customers. In that case the algorithms are generating clicks, but not necessarily extra clicks.

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