My Mental Health Is Not For Sale

Your mental health is being used for advertising purposes. At least that’s what Privacy International has found in a study.

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As someone who has been through some moments of emotional fragility (to say the least), alongside a reported 25% of the population in Europe who experience depression or anxiety each year it only feels fair to demand that something has to change here.

Let’s go back to the beginning. How is this happening? Well, two things are at play here - third party trackers and the storing (and direct sharing) of site data.

If you’ve ever used the internet, then chances are you’ve ran into a pop-up prompt asking for permission to use your data. These are trackers and cookies, available from many big businesses in Silicon Valley like Google’s DoubleClick ad service, Facebook’s tracking pixel and Amazon Marketing Services.

Privacy International took a look at 136 popular mental health web pages across in the UK, Germany and France - analysing them for third party services. Out of all of these, just over 76% of them included trackers for marketing purposes (70.4% used Google’s DoubleClick, with Facebook’s pixel in a close second and Amazon in third).

Plus on the cookie-front, turns out a lot of depression-related web pages are seriously not complying with EU data protection regulation - people in the UK are hit with an average of 12.24 cookies on these web pages before they are able to expressly approve or deny consent.

However, that’s not the worst of it… That’s where the data-mining and what’s called programmatic advertisement comes in. 

This double-trouble of accurate marketing is actually an automated godsend to digital marketers across the planet. Basically, you can make the entire process of finding customers a whole lot less intensive on people by automatically placing ads against the most relevant (and cheapest) keywords, most likely to reach transaction - predicted based on the wealth of data available through your internet activity. 

It makes things easy, but highly controversial and complained about widely across Europe. So, in relation to “depression quiz” websites, certain sites like passeportsante.net are sharing incredibly specific websites to this database of info companies can advertise to you with. Even down to your individual answers to questions - which produce a unique URL variable, and shared back to advertisers.

To many, this is probably going to come over as a bit of a menacing shock. Tracking tools processing depression test results for the purpose of advertising? Without a better way of saying it, that’s a little dickish.

But to someone who has been around in social media marketing a while - an aged veteran who grows horrified at the rapidly increasing number of grey hairs on his head, probably caused by said job (me) - it’s really not that surprising. 

The targeting metrics available to you through Facebook, for example, can make you feel more than a little evil with your advertising intent (shoutout to the single ladies who went through a breakup three months before Valentine’s Day in 2013, who received chocolate and luxury bath product adverts from Boots). But they’re effective, which makes everybody nervous.

What we need in the long term is a worldwide establishment of what is considered “fair game” in terms of data used for advertising. This over-invasiveness is here, as a result of no regulatory action, because nobody seems to care in the political sphere, apparently. Please, politicians (I know you’re a bit busy with this whole Brexit thing at the moment), look out for our digital rights as well as physical rights.

For now, though, how can you stop this? The first obvious option is to stop using Chrome - the mother ship of all cookie-tracking web browsers. Grab something like Opera or Tor, and utilise some sort of plugin to track what sites are utilising cookies if you can’t be without your precious Chrome extensions.

And, take it from someone who has used the likes of these services before, don’t rely on online depression tests. Self diagnosis through a website is not only playing into a rather devious advertising strategy, but it’s not a suitable replacement to the genuine options, which are available just a phone call away.

If you are feeling low, helpless or any sort of emotion connected to depression, please talk to someone. There are a multitude of services out there, but if you’re looking for a more direct recommendation, I spoke to The Samaritans.