It’s a well established fact on the internet that when you don’t pay for something, you are the product. This is the way companies like Facebook operate: You, a user, don’t put down cash every time you log in to see what your friends/family/exes are doing; instead, you hand over your personal data to the company, and that data gets used to target you with ads across the platform. We’ve come to accept this as the cost of using a free service.
But there are plenty of cases where you throw down hundreds of dollars for a piece of hardware and then you end up being the product anyway. Case in point: TVs.
On Wednesday, the television giant LG announced a new offering to advertisers that promises to be able to reach the company’s millions of connected devices in households across the country, pummeling TV viewers with—you guessed it—targeted ads. While ads playing on your connected TV might not be anything new, some of the metrics the company plans to hand over to advertisers include targeting viewers by specific demographics, for example, or being able to tie a TV ad view to someone’s in-store purchase down the line.
If you swap out a TV screen for a computer screen, the kind of microtargeting that LG’s offering doesn’t sound any different than what a company like Facebook or Google would offer. That’s kind of the point.
Online ad spending reached more than $490 billion by the end of last year, and those numbers are only going to keep going up as more advertisers look for more ways to track and target more people online. Traditional TV ad spend, meanwhile, has tanked since its peak around 2016. In order to lure ad dollars back, folks in the television space, like LG, are using every tool at their disposal to claw back the ad dollars the internet’s taken away.
And it’s clearly working. While traditional TV ad spend has plummeted, there’s never been more money spent on advertising across the digitally connected TVs offered by companies like LG. Roku, for example, recently announced an upcoming Shopify integration that would let retailers target TV viewers with more ads for more of their products. Amazon rolled out a new beta platform that lets networks promote apps, movies, or TV shows to people right from the device’s home screen. And I don’t need to remind Samsung TV owners how their devices are getting absolutely plastered with ads from every conceivable angle.
Aside from being an eyesore that literally no TV user wants, these ads come bundled with their own privacy issues, too. While the kinds of invasive tracking and targeting that regularly happens with the ads on your Facebook feed or Google search results are built off of more than a decade’s worth of infrastructure, those in the connected television (or so-called “CTV”) space are clearly catching up, and catching up fast. Aside from what LG’s offering, there are other players in adtech right now that offer ways to connect your in-app activity to what you watch on TV, or the billboards you walk by with what you watch on TV. For whatever reason, this sort of tech largely sidesteps the kinds of privacy snafus that regulators are trying to wrap their heads around right now—regulations like CPRA and GDPR are largely designed to handle your data is handled on the web, not on TV.
Considering how these laws and others aren’t doing the best job of actually keeping people’s data under wraps, it’s unlikely we’ll see anyone on Capitol Hill even broach the subject of people’s televisions for a while. And if the history of internet ad targeting’s taught us anything, it’s that the potential for billions in profits combined with a lack of decent regulation leads to not only more ads, but uglier ads, with newer, uglier forms of tracking. It doesn’t matter if you’re dropping $200, $400 or $900 on a new TV; when you’re looking at a screen, chances are good that you’re the product, too.
The good news is that you have some sort of refuge from this ad-ridden hell, though it does take a few extra steps. If you own a smart TV, you can simply not connect it to the internet and use another device—an ad-free set-top box like an Apple TV, for instance—to access apps. Sure, a smart TV is dead simple to use, but the privacy trade-offs might wind up being too great.