How a dumb hat threw me in a tailspin

A banner ad from a small clothing site opens my eyes to the unpleasant daily confrontations in online advertising.

Last weekend, while reading The Verge, I was confronted by a banner ad displaying a rugged, middle-aged man in a white v-neck and white hat that read “LIONS NOT SHEEP”. He looked at me through the screen with the sort of disappointment that swaddles a seedling of hope. The kind an authority figure gives you when you need discipline, but doesn’t come down on you so hard that you’d want to give up.

On the edges of the ad, I could see his firm biceps—the left adorned with a character from an Asian alphabet, I’m not sure which and I’m not sure he does either. I tracked the tension from the crook of his elbows up to the muscles around his trachea, they were working overtime to keep a lid on his seething masculine anger. 

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The bottom of the ad reads in block letters, “LEAD OR BE LED”. I was ignited from the depths of my spirit, but I questioned if I had enough fuel to meet this image of manhood. Reader, I did not. But that wasn’t the only thing that felt amiss.

The ad above is called a retargeted ad. The tech behind it is the reason why the shoes you looked at on Zappos last week follow you across the web. It’s not just single products that follow you. Some ads, like the above, are an optimized amalgam of all the online flotsam I’ve drifted through in the recent past. That debris was mashed together on a server somewhere and informed the website I was perusing that a ‘LIONS NOT SHEEP’ hat made sense for me. 

We spend more time consuming online media now than ever before. This means the volume of things we engage with online is higher as well. We’re clicking more products, reading more articles, watching more videos, and listening to more songs and podcasts. This ad is the regurgitated bile of everything I’ve partially digested online over some indeterminate timespan. It came from me and it’s a reflection of who I am. 

If this is true, how are we to feel about these daily confrontations with ourselves? Waking up to this truth is seeing the nutritional label of a box of Twinkies only after you’ve finished them. The sowing’s been done. It’s reaping time whether you like it or not. 

This truth transforms how you surf the web. The ads are no longer whispers behind your back, but instead full frontal insults. Each ad tells you what your technology thinks of you. This means it’s also what a bunch of people who made the technology think of you. You’ve wet your pants in the middle of your high school hallway and alongside your classmates, the lockers are in on the joke going open-shut, open-shut, chuckling in harmony at your expense. 

There’s a significant, albeit unquantifiable, amount of trauma which comes with this. Mostly, it stems from the unpredictability of it all. Some sites don’t serve any ads, others serve ads so off-base that you know you weren’t tracked and you’re in a safe space. Then there are the ads that represent truths about yourself so slight and sharp that you don’t notice them under your skin until you’ve scrolled away.   

You never really know when these are coming or what they’ll be about. 

The ad on the left is based off of people I follow and interact with on Twitter, the other based off of content I’ve read on various websites. Despite being for kids, does the ad on the left know I’ve been on a diet and teetotaling all of January, in search of healthy things to drink besides water? The answer is almost certainly, yes. Also, it cost money to run the ad, which means an investment was made on the basis that part of me is a picky little shit.

The selection of suggested reading on the right suggests I’m obsessed with efficiency—clean eating, machine learning, the best online ordering. The commonality in these is self-improvement: either in my health, my work-life, or my finances. Yet, I don’t like salmon, would never spend any of my non-working hours reading about how to improve my organization, and need Amazon Prime lest I run out of things to watch during the pandemic. Nonetheless, the void knows there’s a part of me that will glance at this and consider it. What it doesn’t know is that I’ll subsequently shame myself for how stupid I was to consider it. 

Advertising exploiting your insecurities is nothing new. But it used to be that you’d see Mark Wahlberg in a Calvin Klein ad and know that the people who made the ad were generalizing about everyone. There’s solidarity in that. Now, many of the ads you see are about you alone, and you have nobody to blame but yourself.

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