Blog PostsMedia & PsychologyPersuasion & PropagandaProgrammatic brainwashing: How to micro-target individuals

Programmatic brainwashing: How to micro-target individuals

This should give you the creeps.

A company called The Spinner has launched a service that allows for native ad micro-targeting. And no-one is happy about it; the service is, to put it mildly, questionable; a form of “inception marketing”.

The Spinner adds individual targeting and stealth to marketing.

The Spinner does this for the customer:

  • You sign up for a chosen package, like convince your ex to get back together with you.
  • You get a link to send to your ex.
  • You send the link to your ex and get him or her to click the link. The link will show up as broken, but the fake site will place a cookie in your ex’s browser.
  • The cookie will show ads directly targeted at your ex.
  • The package consists of some 180 native ads all spawning the idea that getting back with one’s ex is an amazing idea. These articles will show up as your ex surfs the web and social networks.

As expected, the company is getting media attention due to its highly questionable nature. The Forbes calls it online manipulation and ABC calls it brainwashing. The media focus is on men tricking women into having sexual relationships (or settle out of court) — a “Cambridge Analytica” of sex.

Well, I’m not sure that individual targeting will stop at sexual innuendoes.

A dark form of ‘inception marketing’

Many have seen Inception, Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio. A team of agents are breaking into sleeping people’s heads to plant ideas within their dreams. The result? The victims wake up thinking that those new ideas are actually theirs.

While The Spinner is a scandalous concept, purposely marketing themselves to stir up conflict, the “technology” is far from advanced; cookie-based programmatic targeting is already in widespread mainstream use. The twist here is to bombard a single individual (rather than a larger group of people) with stealthy messages. And, it could work. Popular mentalists like Derren Brown have repeatedly shown that suggestive techniques can have effects — making targets believe that planted ideas are their own.

The Spinner web service is likely to be written off as an unethical concept, and rightly so, but it’s safe to assume that this might the starting point of a growing number of solutions for individual “pre-suasion”1. Traditional advertising has historically been abundantly clear about what products or services are being advertised, but maybe now we’ll begin to see trials in suggestive targeting based on individual psychologies?

Photo by Rob Potter on Unsplash.


  1. For more on pre-suasion, check out Robert Cialdini’s latest book or my blog post, How to Persuade Anyone of Anything.


Avatar of Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer, aka Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at KIX Communication Index and Spin Factory. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

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