'Black Ops Advertising' Dissects the Rise of Media Manipulation for Corporate Profit
Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from “Black Ops Advertising” by Mara Einstein. “Black Ops Advertising” is published by OR Books. Click here for details.
Black Ops Advertising
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Click a button and we can read the New York Times or watch our favorite TV show or stream the latest movie. Submit a query to Google and a world of knowledge appears on the screen, albeit algorithmically delimited. Newspaper or magazine, TV or movie, fact, tidbit, or commentary, no matter how big or small, how significant or trivial: it’s all available at our fingertips, and it’s all absolutely free.
This is the perception we have been lulled into believing. It is time to wake up. There is no free lunch, free movie, news report, or factoid. We are paying and paying dearly.
We pay with our time and our attention—a scarce and valuable resource in the twenty-first century—and the coin of the realm in today’s “attention economy.”
We pay by being forced to engage with what has become an unending stream of advertising blurred to be indistinguishable from legitimate news stories, leading to the utter skewing of our sense of reality. We pay by providing our personal data to marketers, who then use that data to sell us an increasing array of products “specifically targeted to us” by manipulating and whipsawing our emotions.
We pay by turning our relationships into monetizable opportunities, making personal interactions into market transactions, and remaining in a constant state of buying or selling, albeit one that’s been prettied up to look like sharing and making “friends.” Exaggeration? I don’t think so. Not if dating apps like Tinder exist that allow us to dismiss people with the swipe of a thumb, or apps like Peeple are created with the sole purpose to rate anyone, anytime, without their say, as if they were a plate of food or a room to rent from Airbnb. No matter where we turn in this digitally “enhanced” world, our agency—our personal ability to act freely and independently—is being quashed. We can’t choose the type of content we want to watch or read; we can’t represent who we are; we are emotionally manipulated in the name of corporate profit. This is what marketers call consumer empowerment. I heartily disagree.
Until now, we could be excused for passively interacting with whatever content appears on our mobile device or laptop. Few beyond those working in the industry knew or understood the level of stealth activity associated with digital technologies, and many of them don’t even comprehend it. I sympathize: I’m not a Luddite, but I’m not a tech person either; it all seems too complex and confusing and ultimately overwhelming.
In truth, it was designed that way. You see, we’ve been duped—and by some really smart people. Jeff Hammerbacher, Facebook’s first “research scientist” and a Harvard-trained mathematician, is widely quoted as saying, “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads . . . and it sucks.”
It’s the reason he left the company. But tricking us into clicking on ads certainly doesn’t happen only on Facebook, and manipulation doesn’t happen only at the level of content. The user interface keeps our eyes locked and our hands glued to screens big and small. In 1996, B. J. Fogg—another smart guy, this time from Stanford University—coined the term “Captology,” based on an acronym for Computers As Persuasive Technologies. His work, which has been embraced by numerous companies, uses a combination of tools to increase our interaction with a screen. These are: positive or negative motivation (pleasure or pain), ability (simplify tasks), and triggers (say, a noise cue). So every time a push notification comes through our phone, we leap from whatever we are doing to pick it up, typically in anticipation of a pleasurable reward like a text from a loved one.
Of course, it is more likely to be a come-on from a corporation. But once we’ve been triggered to pick up the phone, we’re hooked, and so we end up clicking and clicking, creating endless data and interacting with untold ads every day—and most of the time, we’re painfully unaware that that is what we are doing. It is utterly Pavlovian. Combine that addictive technology with ambiguous information, and we have content confusion writ large.
As bad as all this is, it’s about to get worse. The media industry as we know it is imploding.
Advertising and Agency
There has long been a tacit agreement media companies had with their audiences: if we sit through the commercials, the networks will provide us with high quality news and entertainment. Barring that, we buy a monthly subscription to programming like HBO or Showtime in order to avoid having to deal with commercials.
While many of us complained about this structure, in truth, it wasn’t that bad.
Commercials may be irrelevant to you or inane in their execution, but some are incredibly entertaining, such as Apple’s “1984,” Budweiser’s “Whassup,” Nike’s Michael Jordan ads, and more recently, VW’s “Darth Vader” and Old Spice’s “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like.” It doesn’t get much better than Under Armour’s Misty Copeland ad. Smart, captivating, strategically aligned advertising is typically so good that you want to watch it. And if you don’t, you can always get up and grab a beer or go to the bathroom or walk the dog.
In this scenario, no company knew in any detail who you were or what you watched or what you bought. You might see some advertising that didn’t relate directly to you, but so what? More importantly, you knew it was a commercial, and it was your choice whether or not to watch it.
At the beginning of the Internet, the high social ideal was that it would somehow exist outside this revenue model. In the boom days before the Internet bubble and even after, company business plans were drawn up without a hint of how the organization was going to generate income. Facebook is a great example here in that they didn’t try to make money for almost six years, yet they still had millions of dollars of investment capital. It was a cyberspace gold rush, but no one knew what they were mining.Making money ultimately came down to two things: sell stuff (ecommerce) or sell time and space (advertising). Subscription models like Netflix or Hulu didn’t take off until later, when broadband became widely available (and ultimately, they qualify as ecommerce too). When the dust finally settled, the Internet turned out to be no different than the legacy media that preceded it. The Internet—and with it, every mobile device we carry, no matter where we go, no matter what we do—is nothing more than a purveyor of sales messages. Your phone is an advertising medium.
So the advertising model you hated on television now exists online, only it’s worse. While you might not have liked commercials breaking up your favorite TV show, ads now follow you around the Internet instead, moving from your computer to your iPad to your cell phone. Along the way, myriad companies are collecting more and more data about you without your even knowing it, though you may suspect it is happening and don’t like it.5
And the advertising is no longer obvious, so you’re never quite sure if you’re getting news or some sort of biased claptrap. With TV, you were anonymous and you knew when you were watching a commercial. Not anymore. Today that cute animal video might be an ad for a mobile phone company, and that article about cocaine use turns out to be an ad for Netflix.
Of course, commercials have long been manipulative and designed to pull at our heartstrings, but we knew we were being manipulated. Today, our emotional world is up for grabs so that we will do the labor of sharing commercial messages with our friends.
While we grumble about commercials, the truth is that advertising was and still is the economic support for all the music and entertainment and news we have come to want and need. It isn’t free and it never was, no matter how much it feels like it is. But we’ll get to the point (and we’re getting close to it) when media outlets can’t sell enough advertising to support the content they need to create. That’s not just an issue for traditional media. Ad blockers, browser extensions that prevent ads from being loaded onto your screen, may become so pervasive as to threaten the existence of online outlets. Ad blockers have been around for a while but only recently achieved wide acceptance, in no small part due to their ability to improve download times because the browser doesn’t have to spend resources on delivering ads. Around the globe, 41 percent of Internet users block ads, and that number is growing.
This latest, greatest means of ad avoidance seems great for us, but it may destroy the advertising-based revenue model as more and more money moves to digital.
Once there isn’t enough advertising income to support media companies, their only alternative is to charge us for every manner of content. It’s already started with HBO Now, CBS All Access, Netflix, Hulu, and so on and so on and so on. It’s also why Google and Apple and Amazon have all gotten into TV, and why Amazon is preventing its competitors from selling TV products on their site. Most telling is the sales pitch for Apple TV, which reads in part: “TV is a major part of our lives . . . Yet somehow, the overall experience of TV has continued to stagnate. Until now. It all starts by recognizing that apps are the future of television. HBO NOW, WatchESPN, Netflix, Hulu, iTunes—apps are quickly becoming how we watch today . . . This is where television is headed.” TV equals apps, and apps equal money coming out of your pocket. Soon, very soon, that $150-a- month cable bill is going to start looking pretty sweet in comparison to all the individual subscriptions we’ll have to buy because we didn’t want to know we were looking at advertising.
Advertising Age calculated what that possible ad-free media universe might look like. A subscription to the New York Times would increase from $195 a year to $334 a year; television would cost about $1,800 a year ($1,200 without premium channels like HBO) for at most a dozen TV channels (rather than the 500-channel universe you are used to because those networks could no longer afford to exist); and Facebook would cost $12 a year. (They also noted that the fee for BuzzFeed would be zero, because no one would pay for that content, and “A World without Advertising Is a World without BuzzFeed.”)
The ad-free media universe posits a reversion to the times of early newspapers, when the only people who could afford access to information were the wealthy. It is a world for the one percenters.
Given this doomsday scenario, I am all for watching TV with commercials—knowing full well they are commercials—and paying for advertising-free online content. I’d pay to use Google; it’s a valuable service. If at some later time I decide that its algorithms are too out of whack, I might change my mind. But let us all decide for ourselves. And at the risk of sounding like a libertarian, let the market decide. Given the choice, $12 a year for Facebook is a pittance in comparison to the price we pay in personal data, skewed reality, and dehumanized personal relationships.
Read more about author Mara Einstein here.