In Sunday's episode of “Last Week Tonight,” host John Oliver took viewers down the creepy rabbit hole that is data collection. As marketers know well, consumer data is one of the hottest commodities for companies to have, for it informs advertising that can be targeted toward specific demographics. But Oliver explained that this data can reflect information that is far more personal than age or gender. It can also be passed around in a manner that is unregulated, irresponsible and dangerous.
The host began the segment by breaking down the role of data brokers, or entities that actually do the collecting of data, after which they share or sell it to brands and companies. Oliver went on to discuss how third-party cookies track consumers around the web, and why this could very quickly lead to invasions of privacy. In one example, the host showed a local TV news clip from 2014 in which the network was able to buy health information on residents, including segments on people with cancer and women who were pregnant.
“I honestly did not think there could be a worse thing to ask a woman you don’t know than ‘Are you pregnant?’ But ‘You are pregnant—want to know who I paid to find out?’ has certainly entered the chat,” Oliver quipped.
The episode concluded with the presentation of an ad targeting experiment, in which Oliver and his staff worked with data brokers to create a humorous demographic group that could potentially fit certain members of Congress (i.e. men, above the age of 45, who live in a five-mile radius of the U.S Capitol and have searched the web for terms like “divorce,” “hair loss” and “mid-life crisis”). Then the team targeted cheeky ads toward this group, which included content on double-voting, marriage help and Ted Cruz erotic fan fiction. Watch the clip yourself (presentation begins at 21:40) to see the, um, telling results…