Teen-Targeted Advertising via Social Media
Updated: Jan 21, 2021
By Maija Baroni
New Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma, directed by Jeff Orlowski, caused quite a stir online after its premiere in early September. Besides being entertaining and insightful, the film warns of the effects of networking on the human psyche, making a rather grim point on social media's dangerous impact.
The documentary outlines the ways companies manipulate and take advantage of social media users. The most affected victims are teenagers; our every move monitored and logged, unconsciously divulging information to eager advertisers. The desire to fit in with trends and pop culture is perhaps strongest in Generation Z, making us highly impressionable and vulnerable to those seeking to exploit new information systems. As avid cultural consumers, we are an incredibly profitable demographic for brands and influencers.
Teens, now mostly confined to our households during lockdowns, are glued to our screens more than ever. Our social interactions are almost exclusively virtual. Companies know exactly where to reach us. For example, Instagram started off as a creative platform but has since turned commercial, with as many as one in four posts on our feeds being ads. Tik Tok has also begun incorporating ads into its For You Page, on top of the sponsored content of the app’s celebrity content creators.
Ads have shifted from billboards and television to sponsored content and social media posts, allowing them to become personalized to each individual’s profile as a consumer. In addition, influencers post so often that we develop a sense of trust in them, leading us to feel like their promotions are genuine advice rather than endorsements. These blurred lines between influencers and PR allow brands to advertise in a more subtle way than ever before.
Such advertising's ethical implications are already muggy and controversial, and worsen when organizations with political motives are involved. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, also known as "AOC," is one of these cases. In recent months, her progressive, feminist ideas have drawn overwhelming social media praise, much of it from teenagers, which has led her to have an established online presence.
The American Democratic politician live-streamed a game of Among Us on Twitch that attracted more than 400,000 viewers on October 20, 2020. In contrast, President Donald Trump and President-elect Joe Biden's Twitch streams generally draw between 1,000 and 15,000 viewers.
Though the stream did have the positive effects of humanizing her and communicating how normal she is, which many politicians struggle to do, it had a motivation beyond leisure. She used the event to encourage viewers to vote, leading them to a Democratic party website with voting information IWillVote.com.
Whatever her intentions, the online event's success at reaching nearly half a million teenagers, with political motives, brings up pretty confusing ethical implications. If we view social media as something we do for pleasure, is it harmful to us to be targeted in that context when our guard is down? And even worse—when it comes to politics?
Ultimately, advertisement has become unavoidable, especially for those addicted to their phones. We must be conscious that we are, unquestionably, a prime target of the marketing industry. Consequently, even when scrolling mindlessly until 3 a.m., we should think critically about all content to remain in control of our own opinions and decisions.