Brandon Wilner ……… blog

22 Jan 2021
Dictionary of Contemporary Evil: impression

[This post is an entry in my Dictionary of Contemporary Evil, a work in progress.]


1) In digital advertising, the monetized act of fetching an ad from its source, which indicates that it has been viewed by a user.

The worker in digital advertising uses a simple line to explain their trade: “It’s an awareness game.” Dollars a company spends on ads do not immediately translate into dollars recovered by the company’s sales. The idea is rather to make one’s brand (see entry: brand) visible to the point that buying from it seems as natural as breathing. The means through which a company achieves such ubiquity is advertising, most of which now occurs digitally, which means that it must purchase ad space from a social media platform like Instagram, a publication like The New York Times, or a search engine like Google. The basic unit of this type of digital advertising is the impression.

The technical definition of an impression has to do with an ad server making a page request from a user’s browser, or at least fifty percent of the ad becoming viewable on a webpage, but the basic idea is that one impression equals one user seeing the ad — it will have made an impression on one person. When the company seeks to spend money on advertising, it must decide how many impressions its product or service is worth. This number may be in the thousands, tens of thousands, and sometimes hundreds of thousands. An ad package may have a cheaper rate for gross impressions, which are counted each time the ad is displayed to a user, even if the same user sees it multiple times. More expensive will be the package of unique impressions, which means that the ad will always be shown to a user who has not seen it before.

The great innovation (see entry: innovate) that provides digital advertising's advantage over traditional print or billboard ads is the ability to sell targeted impressions. A targeted impression is one served to a user whose age, race, gender, nationality, etc. fits within the demographic profile that constitutes the company’s market. If a business selling shoes designed for young women decides to purchase one thousand Instagram ad impressions, they will want to ensure that they are not wasting hundreds of these by having them sent scattershot to users who are older men. And if the shoe company specializes in vegan women’s shoes and has a flagship store in Brooklyn, they will want to ensure that this ad is seen by one thousand different woman Brooklynites who care about sustainability or animal rights. Platforms like Instagram, which more than anything else are ad sales businesses, harvest user data in order to best direct the ad to the targeted and quite specific demographic. The seller of impressions has two primary goals: to make their website always more addictive, and to intensify their ad-targeting abilities through the acquisition of more user data.

But more than a means by which companies secure quality bang for their advertising buck, the impression has become the silken thread with which the vast majority of the corporatized World Wide Web is woven. The user need not pay to use the social media site, for they provide the venue (their own eyes and mind) for the impression, which the website can easily turn into money. A website or app may launch as a free service in order to grow its user base, but in time will have to devise a revenue stream, which either means being bought by a larger website with experience in selling impressions, or figuring out how to sell the things on its own.

The contemporary atomized worker, often too busy with work to spend much time with loved ones or meet new people, turns to social media as a means of communicating with others. The impression is the due they must pay for this digital life, the debt of privacy owed for the credit of love. To be impressed upon is a person’s elementary duty, the shirking of which is antisocial behavior. Those who selfishly hoard their impressions do not deserve to exist.