By now, we’ve established that the internet is terrible and targeted advertising is largely to blame. Ad networks follow us around websites and apps, profiling who we are and what we do in a quest to serve up the most effective ad at the most effective time. Thanks to Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal, we’ve learned that data mining and psychological profiling can influence a lot more than just what soap we buy–it can be weaponized to reshape the democratic process itself.
What can we actually do about it? For staters, we can vote. And we can show the next generation of leaders–our children–what a mess we’ve made of things.
Bushwick Analytica is half art project, half education tool. Developed by Tega Brain–the same artist who brought us a dating service based on smelling someone’s clothing–and funded by the New York Libraries, Bushwick Analytica is a weekly series of workshops at Bushwick Public Library in New York where 11-year-olds design their own targeted ad campaigns.
“Kids today are growing up in a post-broadcast era,” says Brain. “And because of this, it’s absolutely essential to find ways to teach an understanding of algorithms, recommendation engines, and targeting. Why does the internet look different to everyone, and what does that mean?”
In her classes, the kids draw their ads by hand, edit them in Photoshop, come up with a targeting strategy, and then post them with Brain’s help onto the Google Ad platform. “Each ad campaign is run with a budget of $1 per day,” says Brain. “This seems to give 300,000 impressions and about 200 click-throughs for each campaign over a month.”
Along the way, children learn the power of ad-targeting tools by wielding them firsthand. And all of us get to enjoy the sincere, hilarious, and sometimes manipulative messages they create.
“Some targeted high-income earners with messages promoting a more equitable world. Some developed ads about climate change and extinction issues,” says Brain. “Others wanted to encourage people of their own age group to play their favorite games, Fortnite, or on the contrary, wanted to warn against other kids about the dangers of playing too much Fortnite.”
One of Brain’s favorites campaigns reads, “I should have a dog. Ask your parents to get a dog.” And thanks to the way ad targeting works, the creator, Michael, could actually target parents age 25 to 44 near where he lives. That means his parents might see the message to get a dog, or perhaps, other parents in general would see the message to get a dog, creating a culture in which more people in the neighborhood have dogs (and, as a result, his parents might rethink their stance on dogs). Another wonderful ad reads, “No school on Mondays.” The student, Adam, attempted to get this message to teachers in the area by targeting men and women ages 35 to 44 in a certain income bracket. Go get ’em, Adam! We’re rooting for you!
It’s impossible to say if the ads work as intended; even if you clicked on one, it would take you to the website of the Bushwick Analytica project. Still, it’s a superb educational exercise. And on top of that, it’s something of an unintentional parody of the world of advertising today.
“It’s interactive,” says Brain. “They learn something, I learn what it’s like to be 11 years old.”