Marketing company PHD released a so-called study encouraging brands to advertise beauty products to women at the times when they feel most vulnerable. PHD found that women feel unattractive on Mondays, especially in the morning, which is great news for advertisers that want to bombard them with products framed to make them believe new mascara or clothing will transform their current state. On Thursdays, when women apparently feel better about themselves, the marketing company says brands should try to empower them and sell them goods for celebrating over the weekend. But the analysis also found that women are susceptible to targeted ads when they are sick, stressed or crying. Naturally, these are the ideal moments for companies to prey on unsuspecting victims.

Rebecca J. Rosen, an associate editor at The Atlantic, discusses why this goes beyond the average ad’s aims, and crosses the line into just plain disgusting tactics:

…it is an unfortunately perfect example of the troubling possibilities enabled by online data tracking—not an abstract sensation of “creepiness” but an ability to exploit people’s vulnerabilities for the sake of profit.

This is the argument of University of Washington law professor Ryan Calo. As he put it in a recent paper:

The digitization of commerce dramatically alters the capacity of firms to influence consumers at a personal level. A specific set of emerging technologies and techniques will empower corporations to discover and exploit the limits of each, individual consumer’s ability to pursue his or her own self-interest. Firms will increasingly be able to trigger irrationality or vulnerability in consumers — leading to actual and perceived harms that challenge the limits of consumer protection law, but which regulators can scarcely ignore.

Targeting women at their most insecure seems to hit the nail on the head.

Of course, any ad worth its salt is targeted (e.g. beauty products in women’s magazines, car ads in the auto section), but Calo argues that the sort of targeting enabled by the Internet is categorically different. “Advertisers can only reach people at their most vulnerable if they can reach them practically anytime,” he explained to me over email. For most of us, the Internet allows that opportunity, and even when we’re not at a computer, we tend to have our phones with us. “The woman who (apparently, research suggests) feels bad about herself in the morning,” he writes, “can receive a text right then and there from a company offering a ‘beauty’ product.”

In the words of Rosen: Yuck.

—Posted by Natasha Hakimi

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