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What You Missed: How Ad Targeting is Changing Democracy

BY Miranda Neubauer | Thursday, May 3 2012

On a May 3 Personal Democracy Plus Call, Joseph Turow, author of The Daily You, warned that most Americans are significantly unaware of the ways that marketing companies collect information about them, particularly online, and are unable to control how that data is being used or have an informed discussion about such data collection is influencing their media and Internet experience.

Turow has written extensively about how the advertising business has evolved to be significantly shaped by agency conglomerates, at the same time as the media landscape has grown from network television and radio to cable television and the web. A full archive of the call will be available soon for Personal Democracy Plus subscribers from this page.

Surveys conducted since 1999, he said, have shown consistently that American are aware that they are being tracked for advertising purposes. "What they don't understand very well is the idea of data-mining," he said.

When web services such as Google explain their policies, he said they only focus on individual or benign examples, such as how they will show ads about soccer to somebody interested in soccer.

"Why should I care that a company knows that I am looking to buy a bicycle? I'm not against target marketing per se," he said. "[My concern] has to do with the larger notion of social discrimination. You're not simply tagged as someone who is looking for a bicycle, but what companies are doing is they are creating images of us, reputations of us, and increasingly those will be persistent and shared by large corporations, and eventually we'll have a situation where they think that you are their targets and other people are waste."

That not only has implications for what ads somebody sees, but could also influence what prices or discounts a user is considered "valuable" enough to see. (Felix Salmon recently noted that phenomenon with regard to pricing of the Financial Times.) Some companies have begun allowing people to get mortgages based on what friends have paid for mortgages, while other companies are using tools like Klout "to make inferences that have real life consequences."

He said he was fascinated by how the Obama campaign, based on its privacy policy, can collect everything that a user tells them, purchase data from other sources, and then share it with ideologically similar groups, and how most people are not aware what is taking place. '

In the future, he said, the ad industry is looking to television, allowing for example the airing of ads tailored to a specific individual household's characteristics. He warns not only against increased forms of product placement on TV shows, but also that the increased influence of advertising is undermining the difference between editorial content and advertising in publishing, especially with the rise of so-called content farms that publish articles based on search engine optimization, resulting in the proliferation of low-quality content that differs little from advertising.

While the web offers people more interaction and can give consumers more power, he said, thought leaders such as Yochai Benkler or Henry Jenkins "don't talk about advertising, the whole idea that advertisers are shaping this [experience] is missing in these great notions."

Marketing and advertising support are at the core of the web today and the development of the mobile system, and often other activity on social media just feeds into marketing, he noted.

While Turow said he was not in favor of government being able to exercise significant control on the issue, he said he was in favor of government legislating "ground-level" guidelines. Such a policy, he said, could be welcomed by some companies as a way of leveling the playing field. Even if Do Not Track policies became more useful and effective, companies concerned about their ability to earn money through advertising would be able to respond by making their services and the data tracking they require opt-in.

Eventually, "people are gong to realize they are being targeted, and that their information is being shared in ways that they don't like," he said. While there might not be an "Occupy Madison Avenue," it's an issue that could blow up larger than the advertising industry would anticipate.

Turow said he had long called for a privacy dashboard that would explain exactly why a user saw a certain ad, and what factors had led a user to be profiled in a certain way, so that the the user could really "begin to be a part of the process."

Even young people he teaches don't understand these processes, he said. "One word in the news too often is 'creepy,'" 'creepy' means I don't understand, I don't have a good reason to say why I don't like it," he said. "We have to get a point where we can talk intelligently about the specifics of why this works -- we're kind of illiterate, and the language being used for this purpose is obfuscatory." The message to marketing interests should be ,"This isn't rocket science, but explain it to us."