Commentary: The Dark Side of Interactive Marketing

'Digital Destiny' Author Jeff Chester on How New Media Is Causing the Brandwashing of America

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We are witnessing the creation of the most powerful media and communications system ever developed. A flood of compelling video images propelled by the interactivity of the internet will be delivered though digital TVs, PCs, cellphones, digital video recorders, iPods, and countless mobile devices. These technologies will surround us, immerse us, always be on, wherever we are -- at home, work or play.

Jeff Chester is the executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, Washington a nonprofit policy group focusing on digital communications. | ALSO: Comment on this issue in the 'Your Opinion' box below.

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Following our travels
Much of the programming will be personalized, selected by us with the help of increasingly sophisticated, but largely invisible, technologies that will "sense" or "know" our interests, dislikes, and habits. Information about our travels -- in cyber and real space -- will be collected and stored, most often without our awareness. Our personal data will be the basis of computerized profiles that quickly generate commercial pitches honed to precisely fit our psychology and behavior.

A ubiquitous system of micropersusaion is emerging, where the potent forces of new media are being unleashed to influence our individual behavior. From the ad industry's initiatives to better perfect measures such as "engagement," to the MI4 research effort (Measurement Initiative for Advertising, Agencies, Media and Researchers) to harness the power of the unconscious mind, to the rapid evolution of "rich media" virtual applications, a marketing technological "arms race" is underway that will further permeate advertising and marketing in our daily lives.

Wherever we are -- online or in the street connected by mobile devices -- Americans (and much of the world) will be increasingly influenced by the technologies of digital marketing. Such a system will be greatly aided by the scores of supplemental "real world" marketing efforts, including teams of viral street marketers and brand evangelists (many of whom are not yet old enough to vote!).

Increasing power
The ad industry likes to claim that the public has more control over what advertising they see or whether they like it at all. Many Ad Age readers point to the increasing expansion of the media and argue that advertising is now less powerful. But such assertions are disingenuous. Fueled by global media consolidation, advertisers are now working even more closely with content companies. Product placement has morphed into "program" placement and beyond. Like radio and the early days of broadcast TV, marketing, distribution and content are increasingly seamless. The broadband internet, digital TV and new forms of mobile communications are all being shaped by the forces of marketing. As I argue in my new book, "Digital Destiny: New Media and the Future of Democracy," advertising is becoming more powerful, not less.

In the book, I chronicle the ad industry's role in helping shape the early development of the internet, including how groups and companies such as the Advertising Research Foundation (ARF), Procter & Gamble Co., and The New York Times promoted what was once called the "Internet Advertising Ecosystem." It covers the evolution of the "one-to-one," "new media" marketing paradigm that still serves as the industry's basic digital blueprint (further fueled today by sophisticated off- and online data collection, web analytics, interactivity and the branding power of video). The ad industry's substantial research and political infrastructure -- including ARF, Association of National Advertisers, American Association of Advertising Agencies, Interactive Advertising Bureau, its many councils and committees and global groups such as Esomar -- are also explained.

From online "behavioral targeting" to interactive ad networks to "virtual hosts" and other "socially intelligent interfaces," the book attempts to lay bare what marketers plan for the country's "digital destiny." Although readers of Ad Age know well what is now underway and its likely impact, the public is largely uninformed. One of my goals is to encourage a meaningful national debate about the current direction of the ad and marketing industry and its impact on society.

Let consumers decide
One of the most serious concerns is about privacy. Most marketers and advertisers are opposed to permitting consumers/users to have real control over their data. They want the default to be the collection of information so we can be precisely targeted. That's why privacy groups, including my own Center for Digital Democracy (CDD), want Congress to pass legislation requiring a full disclosure of what information is being collected, via what method, and how it is to be used. After examining such details, each consumer would decide on a periodic basis whether to agree to permit the collection of their data (known as "opt-in").

The current "opt-out" system, where consumers have to proactively seek to place their personal information off-limits, is designed to ensure that most consumers consent by default to data collection. New threats to our privacy from marketers and advertisers have emerged, including behavioral targeting, online retargeting (where consumers are digitally shadowed over ad networks), and the emergence of "intelligent ad engines" placed in cellphones and other mobile devices.

Recently, CDD and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group jointly filed a petition with the Federal Trade Commission asking the agency to declare many of today's interactive advertising industry practices, including behavioral targeting and virtual advertising, unfair and deceptive. It appears that the FTC is now slowly lifting its head out of the digital sand to seriously investigate the industry based on our complaint. But it will take prodding from the new Congress to get the FTC to act.

Safeguards for new technology
Beyond privacy, interactive-marketing technologies also raise unique concerns about "vulnerable" populations. Unleashing personalized and cyber-virtual marketing to children, teens, prescription-drug users, and the elderly raise important questions related to public health. These groups will need to be protected with new safeguards. But even more is at stake. The entire system of interactive advertising must become more transparent and requires intense public scrutiny, debate, and -- where needed -- effective public policies.

For example, advertisers are now working to harness the power of our emotions through research on "neuroscience" and "psychophysiology." As the ARF and AAAA explained in 2005 during Advertising Week, the industry wants to "capture unconscious thought, recognition of symbols and metaphors."

"Emotional responses can be created even if we have no awareness of the stimuli that caused them," the ARF and AAAA noted. Such potential manipulation of a consumer's unconscious will be even more powerful when delivered by virtual agents (such as avatars) that have been fashioned (via data profiling) to dovetail with our desires and interests.

What's the long-term impact?
I fear that such a powerful psychosocial stealth-marketing machine, backed by the yearly expenditure of many billions of marketing dollars, will drive personal consumption to greater excess. What will be the impact on our environment, such as global warming, as a steady stream of interactive marketing messages are planted deep into our brains wherever we go? Will the digital push to buy and positively associate with brands promote an even more narcissistic human culture? What will be the impact of our personalized communications marketing system on the healthy development of children, families and communities?

The ad and marketing industries have an important role to play in our society, especially helping financially support news, information, and entertainment services. I recognize that advertising will continue to be a very powerful force in our lives. But marketers need to demonstrate greater social responsibility. They must ensure that consumers fully understand and consent to digital techniques; make certain that approaches to target our emotions and other brain behaviors are truly safe (including the impact of virtual reality); and, most importantly, help our media system evolve in a way that strengthens civil society.

Such a goal is not for the U.S. alone, but also involves how the marketing industry serves the public in the developing world. For example, what will be the impact on the world environment as China's emerging digital infrastructure is bombarded with one-to-one commercial messages promoting automobiles?

The creation of a broadband media system will be viewed by future generations as one of our society's most significant accomplishments. Will it be seen as one of the highest achievements for a democracy, a place in cyberspace that helped enrich the lives of many and offered new opportunities for an outpouring of cultural and civic expression? Or will it been seen years hence as a new version of what the late scholar Neil Postman aptly described as a medium even more capable of "amusing ourselves to death"? The readers of Ad Age will help determine that answer.

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This column was adapted from Mr. Chester's new book "Digital Destiny" (The New Press, 2007).
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