BadSense: How Google’s Invasive Ads Made My Break-Up Even Harder

Breaking up sucks. For Lucy Melbourne, it sucks even more when aggressive text ads assault her email inbox.

Illustration by Hallie Bateman

I broke up with my boyfriend this past winter. He had a drug habit that he kept lying to me about. Every time it became an issue, I’d say, “You gotta stop, or at least tell me when you fall off the wagon, because you can’t keep lying to me!” And he’d be like, “Can do.” And then a couple months later I’d be all, “I found out you’re lying to me!” So, now I’m over it. For reals.

After we broke up, he kept his distance. For about a week we corresponded curtly by email. Meanwhile, since this was over my Christmas vacation (great timing), all I did was cry on my couch and email friends and family about what had been going on. And then I started to notice them. The ads.

Forgive Me Flowers. On Sale.

Google AdWords was trying to coach me through my break-up. I was pissed. I tried to ignore them, but they were always there, haunting me from the right side of my Gmail screen.

Is he your true love? Find out with this test!

PROBS NOT GMAIL. PROBS NOT. Not all the ads were subliminally trying to get me back together with this guy, but the ones that weren’t were worse.

Sad Suicide Poems

Super helpful.

Black Magic Love Spells

Creepy.

And let’s not forget:

30 and STILL Single?

Who the hell would actually click on any of these? Well, me, for one. Because when you’re sad and lonely and the side of your screen keeps saying, Find love on Match.com!, it’s kind of irresistible! Of course I snapped out of ad hypnoses a couple clicks into Match.com’s site because I remembered I didn’t want to find love on Match.com. We all like to think we are impervious to the advertising we don’t care about, but obviously it continues to work. It is not right that I should feel emotionally vulnerable because of repeating, You can still find love! and Want someone to grow old with? ads, but I did.

A month later, the ex came around and wanted to make amends. I was trying to be supportive but unwilling to get back together. Occasionally, after seeing me, he would email, repeating that he was sorry, to which Gmail would remark:

Tired of dealing with weak men?

Because he was apologizing, he was a weak man? Not only was Gmail getting way too personal, it was clashing with my sense of gender equality.

But this was before he completely acid-rained on my parade. My ex came to my apartment to tell me he had already bought an engagement ring. He asked if I would I please reconsider, and I said I would.

I actively kept this news out of my email because I didn’t even want to think of the sideways advice Gmail would have for me. But one of my friends brought it up on Gchat, and, next thing I knew, my inbox turned into a bonanza of wedding ads.

Find the perfect wedding ring!
Wedding Dresses for Cheap!
How to Plan Your Wedding

Though I had found peace in the break-up, even the toughest, most independent woman is working against hundreds of years of marriage-equals-success thinking. I’m not going to say that Gmail ads almost made me get married to someone I didn’t want to be with, because then I sound nuts, but… maybe I’m nuts then. Whatever the case, it took me way longer than I ever should have let it to decline this awkward proposal.

The Gmail help section reads, “Our goal is to provide Gmail users with ads that are useful and relevant to their interests.” So, I wondered, what about people who really need help? I sent an email to myself: “I am going to kill myself.”

Guess what? No ads.

I tried again with, “I am going to kill myself. I love cupcakes.”

There were many ads about cupcakes and cupcakeries. So much for being helpful.

I’m not the first person to notice this. After some googling, I found a blogger who suggests appending “PS suicide death 9/11 murder” at the bottoms of all personal correspondence to remove sponsored links. Because that would be a healthier option.

I really understand that Gmail is a great email service to be thankful for (AOL, remember?). And I appreciate that it is great and free, and I know that we must have ads for that to be possible. Advertising is sometimes difficult to deal with because it shows us what someone else has decided we should want to be. Commercials aren’t ever really about the product; they’re about the idea the manufacturer wants the product represent to us.

It’s no secret that advertisers try to appeal to our subconscious insecurities, but it was easier to ignore when it was a one-way street. You can easily mute a TV ad. But personal advertising, though practical, is invasive and sometimes hard to cope with. What I discovered this winter is that it can also be hurtful, or, worse, manipulative on a personal level. Google uses your search history, Facebook goes after users’ interests, Amazon by purchase history. This is the future of advertising, and I’m not sure how to tune it out yet.

When I sent this essay to myself in Gmail, I got a ton of ads for healing. Probably because “ex-boyfriend” is in the title.


Illustration by Hallie Bateman

Lucy Melbourne is a pen name.