The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ads took over shopping in 2022. It’s now harder to trust what you buy.

Big stores including Amazon, Walmart and Target have embraced the personalized advertising tactics of Google and Facebook

An explosion of boxes and ads.
(Elena Lacey/The Washington Post; iStock)

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The big honking obvious revolution in shopping since 2020 is that Americans are buying more things online.

Another shift that might be nearly as momentous for your shopping: Online stores and real-world ones are becoming more like Google and Facebook. They’re selling your attention, while also selling you products.

When you read an email from Home Depot or browse on Amazon, those stores are using what they know about you to nudge you to a brand of dresser or dog bed that pays to catch your eye.

You’re used to commercial messages everywhere. And advertising isn’t new in e-commerce and retail stores. Those potato chips at the end of the supermarket aisle probably paid for the prominent shelf space.

But 2022 was the year when paid persuasion invaded more places you shop.

Charging money to influence what you buy helps stores and dog bed manufacturers make more money. Whether this is good for your shopping experience is not really the top priority.

Like many changes in shopping, Amazon is leading the way in paid product persuasion becoming a bigger part of your shopping life. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

My colleague Geoffrey A. Fowler recently dug into Amazon’s shift away from a site where price and quality largely determined what products you’re most likely to see. More and more, your Amazon searches turn up listings of companies that pay Amazon extra to show you their blenders ahead of those from competitors.

Amazon says that the company’s paid promotions are personalized and help you find products that suit you. All companies that sell ads say this. And there is truth to it. Amazon’s advertising sales also have been picking up steam for years. (I first wrote about Amazon’s advertising ambitions about six years ago.)

But marketing and shopping experts told me that Amazon’s paid product commercials reached a new level of power this year in three ways: Amazon is eating more of the advertising industry. A growing number of companies believe it’s useful for them to spend more on Amazon ads. And more stores are copying Amazon’s approach.

For the first time in years, Google and Meta have grabbed less than half of the digital marketing money spent in the United States in 2022. Amazon, which took more than 11 percent of all digital ads purchased, was the biggest reason Google and Meta lost ground as advertising powerhouses, according to the research firm Insider Intelligence.

In part because of Amazon’s success with paid product promotions, Walmart, Target, the grocery delivery company Instacart, drugstore chain Walgreens and other retailers are also putting a higher priority on tailoring commercials to influence what you buy, advertising specialists said.

Another reason these ads are spreading is that retailers’ knowledge of what you buy is valuable, especially now that there are more limitations on how internet powers such as Facebook can follow everything you do to target you with ads.

Like Google and Facebook, stores are trying to use as much information as they can find about you to steer your choices. One difference from Google and Facebook is that retailers like Amazon and Walmart make money from influencing what you buy and from selling you the product.

The thing is … these ads seem to work on you. And that’s why paid product persuasion is likely here to stay.

CommerceIQ, whose software helps businesses sell stuff on Amazon and other stores, told me that for each dollar that product sellers spent on Amazon ads during a holiday shopping stretch around Black Friday, they sold more than $5 worth of stuff most of those days. Yeah, that’s a good deal for those companies.

(Calculations of how well ads work are notorious for being unreliable marketing voodoo. But I felt comfortable with CommerceIQ’s data.)

It’s easy to say you hate ads, but this type of marketing can be handy sometimes.

If you’re at a Macy’s store or on Walmart’s website to browse for a new winter coat, you might want suggestions for which coat to buy, whether those recommendations are from a professional shopper or from paid commercials. You might also be fine with your supermarket hoarding information on your purchases in exchange for loyalty discounts.

If you don’t love your favorite big box store nudging you to buy a brand of toothpaste that pays for your attention, you don’t have a lot of power to resist. Just being aware of shopping ads is a good step. Online, they often have small labels that say “Sponsored” or something similar.

Under California’s privacy law, you may be able to demand that retailers delete personal information they have collected about you that are some of the ingredients for paid persuasion ads. (Try searching the name of the retailer and “CCPA,” the acronym for the state’s data privacy law.)

Unfortunately, filling out the requests to delete your data can be confusing and time consuming, and may only be available to California residents. And deleting your data from Walmart or Amazon won’t remove ads when you shop. Ads will just be less targeted to you.


One tiny win

You’ve heard this advice before: Turn on two-step verification for your online accounts.

It’s a pain, I know. But try taking five minutes today to pick one account — your email provider or primary bank account are good places to start, if possible — and chose an extra step to log into your account in addition to your password.

Needing to enter a one-time code to log in means that even if a crook steals your password, he will have a hard time messing with your account.

Here are instructions to turn on two-step account access for popular email services like your Google accounts including Gmail, Microsoft, Apple accounts and Yahoo.

And read more from Heather Kelly: 6 easy fixes to avoid tech headaches in 2023.

Brag about YOUR one tiny win! Tell us about an app, gadget, or tech trick that made your day a little better. We might feature your advice in a future edition of The Tech Friend.

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