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IDEA SERIES: Can Online Advertising Influence People’s Behaviour?

This article is a part of IDEA series. The purpose is to share ideas to write an effective essay. The topics under these series are derived from latest newspaper reports.

Due to the recent events related to data sharing by Facebook and misuse by Cambridge Analytica in various political campaigns, a key question has cropped up: Can online advertising (includes political advertising) influence people’s behavior?

Cambridge Analytica, as it was recently revealed in several reports, allegedly used the Facebook data to influence the American presidential elections in 2016, the Brexit Vote and the elections in India. This view claims that data analytics is a formidable marketing tool and it has potential to psychologically influence the behavior of people by analyzing online data (usually available on social media websites such as Facebook).

However, there is an opposite view as well. Some people believe that no amount of online advertising can change the free will or beliefs of a person. In fact, these campaigns just reinforce the existing beliefs. Human opinions are usually deeply embedded and they are a result of the social surroundings and experience. For instance, if you’re a devout Republican, no amount of advertisements from Democrats can influence your behavior.

Moreover, humans often suffer from confirmation bias which is an innate human tendency to seek information that confirms pre-existing beliefs. Therefore, when a person watches an advertisement that intends to change his behavior, it may not appeal him at all. For instance, no advertisement can sell guns to people who are strongly opposed to the gun culture.

Thus, many people believe that advertisements merely facilitate decision making and do not influence it. These may impact brand preference but not behavior.

My belief: I believe advertisements can not influence human behavior when our opinions are strong. However, when we are not sure of our views and are doubtful of the right path, online advertising shapes opinions. For instance, during the Brexit vote, Cambridge Analytica used Facebook’s data to target people with politically motivated content.

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