Somewhere, someone in a U.S. major city is likely receiving a targeted ad on Instagram or Facebook, the type featuring the minimalist, semi-sarcastic lazy but not-too-lazy aesthetics associated with millennial culture, all plastered around several lines of eye-grabbing text. But this time, the text isn’t an ad for ADHD medication or an electric toothbrush. No, it’s for Jesus, and the person viewing it has been carefully selected by an algorithm based on their perceived susceptibility to religious messaging.
That’s, in short, the product being offered by Colorado-based startup Gloo, which was the subject of a new Wall Street Journal report. The company’s stated goal is to use its technology to find internet users in their time of need and then act as a religious middleman connecting them to a church eager to grow their flock.
Unlike a political campaign ad which may try to focus on individuals who have a history of engaging with political articles or memes or a sports page, Gloo works in part by using technology to find users deemed to be in a moment of distress, the same types of people that Churches have sought out long before the advent of the internet. By looking at metrics like demographics, search history, and purchasing behavior, Gloo has claimed it can predict the characteristics of people in struggling marriages, those grappling with anxiety, or even those who may be trying to kick a drug addiction, the Journal notes.
The company says its online campaigns are designed specifically for people who “typically don’t go to church—but need prayer,” or are questioning aspects of their faith. Gloo refers to this sea of everyday internet doomscrollers as, “online explorers.”
In a sense, Gloo’s ads are analogous to the digital, hyper-individualized equivalent of those unforgettable billboard ads strewn across interstate highways: timeless classics like “SHACKLED BY LUST” written in flaming text, or this author’s personal favorite, the “After you die, you will meet God,” guarantee. (That one has a flailing vital sign next to it).
Gloo thankfully serves its ads with a softer touch, but its targeted approach means it’s far more likely to land in front of the eyeballs of a person actually in the grips of despair than its billboard brethren, or so the company’s pitch goes.
For example, the Gloo website features examples of ads displaying images with text assuring readers that “Jesus suffered anxiety,” and that “Jesus was born to a teen mom,” among other relatability-signaling phrases. Ultimately, Gloo says its goal is to help churches save time while simultaneously potentially serving, (or at least reaching) a wider audience.
“Now imagine with me for a moment,” a Gloo narrator says in a promotion video for its “He Gets Us,” campaign, “what if, instead of all these ads, Jesus was the biggest brand in your city this Holiday?” The company pitches all of these Instagrammable catchphrases as a way to have explorers encounter what they call the real Jesus and nudge them towards their website or, better yet, maybe even go a step further and connect with a local church. On the other side of the coin, Gloo’s website provides detailed instructions, examples, and templates for Church volunteers offering best practices to reel these explorers in once they’ve expressed interest.
“We believe this is the right thing to do,” a Gloo spokesperson told The Journal, “And Gloo is committed to doing it the right way.”
In addition to the advertisements, Gloo also creates websites that attempt to link distressed individuals with churches for care. Those web pages are linked to specific search terms like “loneliness,” or others related to a failing marriage. The company claims at least 30,000 churches have partnered with Gloo to use its services and says it has the anonymized digital profiles of some 245 million people in the U.S. Though there’s a mix of free and premium services on the platform, the average premium customer allegedly pays Gloo $1,500 per year the Journal notes.
The services don’t stop at the recruiting level either. Gloo also provides its partners (in this case, Churches) with data analytics showcasing relevant community issues. This means, in theory, Churches can then take that data and use it to help craft services or sermons that most resonate with their own community. Think Moneyball, but with original sin and transubstantiation. These ad campaigns aren’t free of course, and Gloo says it’s able to afford the practice through a pool of funds that comes from contributors and donors. New churches eager for religious recruits offer the potential to grow Gloo’s pool of funds further.
Regardless of the sincerity of Gloo’s stated mission, the company is relying on the same types of targeted advertising techniques that have raised alarm bells for activists and lawmakers in recent years, particularly following Facebook’s 2018 Cambridge Analytica scandal. Everyday internet users are uncomfortable with targeted ads generally. A majority (51%) of U.S. adults surveyed by YouGov in 2019 said they thought targeted advertisements represent an inappropriate use of personal opinion. That view remained relatively consistent even when factoring in gender, age, income, region, and political affiliation.
These concerns have helped inspire a trickling of new data privacy laws in California and several other U.S. states that limit targeted ads’ pervasiveness, though have fallen short of mustering any meaningful support for a federal privacy standard that would apply universally across the country. To this point, Gloo told the Journal it follows all California and other state privacy laws. Google meanwhile, one of several key resources for Gloo, has announced its intention to prohibit websites from using third-party cookies, a change that’s likely to have a yet to be determined impact on targeted ads as a whole.