Accepted paper:

The market that fails to see


Minna Ruckenstein (University of Helsinki)

Paper short abstract:

Across various domains, from health to communication and politics, tracking and measurement is expanding and becoming ever more fine-grained. This paper discusses targeted marketing and ways of 'seeing' in the market-consumer relationship.

Paper long abstract:

Digital economy's classificatory mechanisms, backed by algorithmic techniques and large volumes of data, suggest a new kind of intertwining of market institutions and consumers. "Markets have learned to 'see' in a new way, and are teaching us to see ourselves in that way, too", as Fourcade and Healy observe (2017, 10).

Based on empirical material discussing everyday notions of algorithms, targeted advertisement is typically perceived as superior to non-targeted advertisement, but it still tends to irritate social media users. Advertisements mimic past behavior, thereby generating unpleasant experiences of people being surveilled and stalked. Interviewees also complain that the ads are not predicting their needs, but operate on a too mechanical manner, relying on age-gender-location-based categories. Classification schemes become visible as crude sorting mechanisms: young women are informed about dating sites and pregnancy tests, and women over forty are targeted with anti-wrinkle cream ads.

The paper argues that the "new intimacy of surveillance" (Berson 2015, 40) that guides marketing practices is more likely to please when the marketing efforts do not stand out, but they anticipate new needs, desires and plans before they have fully formed. People feel that they are not simply being sorted out, but ads feel relevant to them. Meaningful encounters with marketing generate feelings of joy and pleasure and occasionally actual purchasing decisions, suggesting that people like to be seen by the market. The paper ends by reflecting what this kind of seeing suggests in terms of market agents, consumers and critical research.

panel G05
Seeing with data and devices