Somewhere in a major city in the US, someone is likely to receive a targeted ad on Instagram or Facebook, the type with the minimalist, semi-sarcastic lazy but not-too-lazy aesthetic associated with millennial culture, all plastered around several lines of eye-catching text. But this time, the text isn’t an ad for ADHD medication or an electric toothbrush. No, it’s for Jesus, and the person viewing it has been carefully selected by an algorithm based on their perceived sensitivity to religious messages.
That, in short, is the product being offered by Colorado-based startup Gloo, which was the subject of a new Wall Street Journal. report. The company’s stated goal is to use its technology to find Internet users in their time of need and then act as a religious intermediary connecting them to a church eager to grow their flock.
Unlike a political campaign ad that may try to target individuals who have historically engaged in political articles or memes or a sports page, Gloo works in part by using technology to find users who are in a moment of need. are the same types of people who visited churches long before the advent of the Internet. By looking at metrics such as demographics, search histories and buying habits, Gloo has claimed it can predict the characteristics of people in struggling marriages, those struggling with anxiety, or even those trying to overcome drug addiction, the Journal notes.
Company say the online campaigns are specifically designed for people who “don’t usually go to church, but need prayer” or who question aspects of their faith. Gloo refers to this sea of mundane internet doom scrollers as “online” explorers.”
In a way, Gloo’s ads are analogous to the digital, hyper-individualized equivalent of those unforgettable billboard ads strewn across highways: timeless classics like “SWITCHED BY LUST” written in flaming text, or this author’s personal favorite, the “After you die you will meet God,” warranty. (It has a waving vital sign next to it).
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Gloo thankfully serves its ads with a softer touch, but the targeted approach means it’s far more likely to land in front of a person truly in the throes of despair than its billboard brethren, the company’s pitch reads. .
For example, the Gloo website features sample ads with images with text assuring readers that “Jesus had fear” and that “Jesus was born to a teenage mother,” among other relatability-signalling phrases. Ultimately, Gloo says the goal is to help churches save time while potentially serving (or at least reaching) a wider audience.
“Now introduce yourself with me,” says a Gloo narrator in a promotion video for the ‘He Gets Us’ campaign, ‘What if, instead of all these ads, Jesus was the biggest brand in your city this holiday?’ The company uses all of these Instagrammable slogans as a way for explorers to meet what they call the real Jesus and push them to their website or, better yet, maybe even go a step further and connect with a local church. On the other side of the coin, Gloo’s website provides detailed instructions, examples, and templates for church volunteers that offer best practices for bringing in these explorers once they’ve expressed an interest.
“We believe this is the right thing to do,” a Gloo spokesperson told The Journal, “and Gloo is committed to doing it the right way.”
In addition to the advertisements, Gloo also creates websites that attempt to link distressed people to churches for care. Those web pages are linked to specific search terms such as “loneliness” or others related to a failed marriage. The company claims that at least 30,000 churches partner with Gloo to use its services and says it has the anonymized digital profiles of some 245 million people in the US. While there is a mix of free and premium services on the platform, the average premium customer reportedly pays Gloo $1,500 per year, the Journal notes.
The service does not stop at the recruitment level either. Gloo also provides its partners (in this case, churches) with data analytics demonstrating relevant community issues. This theoretically means that churches can then use that data to create services or sermons that most resonate with their own communities. Think of Moneyball, but with original sin and transubstantiation. These ad campaigns aren’t free, of course, and Gloo says it can pay for the practice through a pool of funds coming from contributors and donors. New churches eager to seek out religious recruits offer the potential to further grow Gloo’s pool of funds.
Regardless of the sincerity of Gloo’s mission, the company relies on the same types of targeted advertising techniques that have set alarm bells ringing for activists and legislators in recent years, in particular next Facebook’s 2018 Cambridge Analytica scandal Everyday internet users are generally uncomfortable with targeted advertising. A majority (51%) of American adults interrogated by YouGov in 2019 said they thought targeted ads represented an inappropriate use of personal opinion. That opinion remained relatively consistent, even when gender, age, income, region and political affiliation were taken into account.
These concerns have helped push in new data privacy laws California and several other US states that limit the ubiquity of targeted advertising, but have failed to gain meaningful support for a federal privacy standard that would apply universally across the country. So far, Gloo told the Journal that it follows all California and other state privacy laws. Meanwhile, Google, one of the main sources for Gloo, announced its intention to prohibit websites from using third-party cookies, a change that is likely to have yet to be determined effect on targeted advertising as a whole.
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