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Oh no, I'm being watched online! And so are you!

January 18, 2010 09:50 IST

You could be emailing a family member to tell them you have piles (God forbid!) and up pops an ad for an ayurvedic remedy, writes Sumanto Chattopadhyay.

EmailI just received and then forwarded an email of what we Indians call the 'non-vegetarian' variety. The subject of the mail read 'Incredible Hulk Saves The World'.

It had a visual of the Incredible Hulk action figure being rather 'supportive' of this nice young lady with precious little on. As soon as I opened the mail a link popped up at the top of my inbox.

It took me to a news item on a news site that had a story about how Canada's second-oldest magazine, The Beaver, is changing its name.

The Beaver was started as a magazine for the fur trade, hence its name. But the word has become a double-entendre that also serves as slang for female genitalia! So people are embarrassed to buy or be seen reading it, making sales go limp.

Was this coincidence? A random link about beavers that appeared in my mailbox while I was looking at a 'beaver'? Nah! Welcome to targeted online advertising.

The text in the mail that you receive or send is used as keywords to instantly display a link to an ad or site that you might be interested in. For example, I received an email from my financial advisor recommending I make some investments.

As soon as I clicked on the mail, I was targeted with an ad from a well-known Indian online demat trading company.

The good part of targeting is that you get information and advertising that is relevant to you. The scary part is that a lot of strangers potentially have access to your private interests.

You could be emailing a family member to tell them you have piles (God forbid!) and up pops an ad for an ayurvedic remedy. Or you could write a mail containing anti-government views and you might find yourself in jail!

(This is not fanciful exaggeration, it's happening in a country near you.) Targeted advertising happens not only through email. Dozens of companies use cookies to track websites you have visited, purchases made, etc, to provide you with ads that link to your needs.

So picture this: You have been entering a lot of porn sites lately. You happen to be online doing something perfectly innocent right now (especially as your family is around) and your wife looks over your shoulder to find these rather interesting ads for, I don't know, say, inflatable dolls on your screen! Hmmm.

Thank goodness, there is software available that prevents you from being targeted online. I'm going to end this column right away so I can quickly go download me some!

The author is executive creative director, South Asia of Ogilvy & Mather

Sumanto Chattopadhyay
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