I’m Not The Person YouTube Thinks I Am


Groucho Marx Glasses on a dummy
Based on YouTube ads, Google classifies me as an overweight young adult who likes video games but struggles with arthritis. Clearly, Google has me confused with someone else, which is both amusing and a relief.

Back in November 2020, I ran a little experiment where I enabled ad personalization for a period of 3 months. I was feeling a little... um... Grouchy about privacy, and wanted to see if targeted ads hit or miss their Marx.

Ads that pegged me as a college student or young adult included Grammarly, Dr. Squatch Soap, and video games. Admittedly, I watched most of the video game ads in their entirety, and by doing so, I likely misled the algorithm to my alleged youthfulness. But then there were ads I found intellectually insulting and wished I could block. They were from Prager U and The Epoch Times, and they would present news and commentary on politics, family, and climate change in a facile and seductive manner, rather than in a thoughtful and sincere way.  Even when I skipped the ads as soon as it was allowed, they would  show up regularly.

Ads that treated me as infirmed included fat removal surgery, and secret foods to treat arthritis. While I do, on occasion, experience stiff finger joints, it's because I am not the young adult Google thinks I am. As for fat surgery, it is apparent from my blog profile pic that weight loss isn't a priority, let alone something as drastic as surgery.

Ads that seemed to contradict each other came from a solar panel installer and Chevron. I tend to lean green, and was interested in the solar panels. But I wasn't interested in Chevron as the company tried to convince me of their efforts at lowering their carbon emissions. I remain skeptical and suspect that the ad is Chevron's attempt to paper over their persecution of human rights lawyer Steven Donziger.

Ads that got it mostly right were the ones based on the video I was viewing. While watching political news, I got political ads from all parties. While watching financial news, I received ads on how to invest. While watching DIY home and car repair videos, ads appeared selling tools and car insurance.

One explanation for these disparate ads might be because, in addition to myself, I searched on behalf of a child and parent. Another possibility is that Google intentionally gets a profile slightly wrong so as not to appear too creepy. That would be a remarkably sensitive idea, but in my case, Google's ad personalization was so far off the mark as to be mostly useless. In a way, Google's clumsiness is reassuring; their current generation of search isn't intrusive or evil. Nevertheless, I have since turned that feature off and plan to keep it off.


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