advertising psychology

What if an evil corporation knew all about you?

Facebook have announced their first share offer. There was a fairly nuanced discussion on the BBC’s Today programme, which contained the useful maxim: if the service is free then you are the product. We pour personal information about ourselves – our locations, likes, friends and activities – into Facebook and Facebook sells that bit of us to advertisers. John Humphrys managed a grumble about whether we could trust a corporation with all that personal information, but nobody in the discussion seems to be able to raise much by way of concrete reasons not to give Facebook that information about yourself, they just had vague worries. Elsewhere, Cory has talked about the privacy bargain we make with corporations, and the dangers of making that bargain unknowingly or carelessly, but I want to leave that aside for a moment. Imagine a world where everyone was aware of exactly what Facebook were doing – ie selling information about our desires to advertiser. In this case, the vague worry about Facebook crystalises around a psychological question – can we be manipulated by corporations that know our desires? Imagine, if you will, that Facebook is the equivalent of the malevolent demon of Cartesian philosophy, still absolutely evil in intent, but different in that it can only control you through precisely targeted marketing messages, not through direct control of yours senses. Would you still sign up for a Facebook account? Say the Facebook Demon finds out you like lemons. Lemon Products Inc advertise you Lemon Perfume, LemonTech advertise you a lemon squeezer and Just Lemons Inc. offer you 10% off the price of lemons in their stores. Is this a bad world? The answer is only yes if you believe in the power of advertisers to make us do things we don’t want.

6 replies on “What if an evil corporation knew all about you?”

I would argue that although adverts may not have the power to make us do things we don’t want, they have the power to make us do things that we do want, which can be just as bad.

Say that I’m trying to reduce my lemon intake for my own health and I’m currently craving lemons. I want lemons but I don’t want to want them. Through the placement of lemon adverts The Facebook Demon has not made me do anything I didn’t have a want to do and might have even helped me fulfil that want, to my own detriment.

Adverts are fantastic at making us do things they want us to do (whether we think we want to or not). That’s always been the case; the internet simply offers another, possibly better, way to target advertisements. I’m not any more worried about the power of advertising than I was before the internet, Google, and Facebook came along. (Which is not to say that I’m not worried about the power of advertising.) I do worry that I’m not aware of the information I make available (which is another topic of discussion).

I think there are further concerns about Facebook (or any other agent)’s access to copious personal information beyond throwing adverts our way. Off the top of my head (and without any grounding) I can think of

Selling blocks of personal data on a data market that could then end up with criminals using it to get an edge to exploit me online; my banking password is soylentgreen4 and this could be partially compromised by algorithmic analysis of all of my data, even if deliberately *never* mention that film online. Big data can’t mind-read, but could aid in winnowing-down the infinity of social realities to ones that are much more manageable, and make problems tractable that I don’t want to be.

Selling blocks of personal data on a data market that could then end up with criminals using it to get an edge to exploit me personally; again, analysis of massive data could throw up likely sensitivities, travelling habits, income/location etc that could put me at risk.

Sharing with agents, including the state, who may want to use this information for coercion – again, I’m talking about winnowing down to areas with a high likelihood of payoff if explored more deeply.

Reusing creative content, especially repurposing for ends abhorrent to me as a creator. I don’t post photos to facebook because I can’t keep up with what their reuse rights are, but I remember them being highly powerful.

On the subject of adverts, I’m not so worried about being shown lemons if I like lemons, but highly personalised advertising that takes account of thousands of personal data points to play on all the things that matter to me becomes less like an advert and more like opening the door for every highly trained door-to-door salesman to corner you when you have a bit of a hangover. The issue isn’t what happens on Facebook, it’s what happens off facebook, and that could be over the phone, through the mail, on other sites, even ultimately woven into article text (where current adblocker approaches wouldn’t be adequate to screen). Or, you know, coming knocking at your door….

More grist

The fact that it’s Targeting (hoho) people at a very particular time of their life, when things they are accustomed to are changing on them, makes it a pertinent example of the OP topic – focused advertising. It’s not IMO a harbinger of my worse-case scenarios, just an example of what focused advertising means in practice – focus will be put where its judged to have the greatest returns. Hit people who are /when they are most influenceable.

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