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Stupid Media Watch: Dehumanizing the Chattel


By Ken Magill

Another day, another anti-marketing hack job by the New York Times’ Natasha Singer.

There is seemingly no reporter on earth who can accurately describe breathtaking online-marketing innovation and be as ignorantly dismissive of its benefits as she is.

She literally gets it without getting it.

In her latest anti-marketing hack job, “Your Attention, Bought in an Instant,” Singer takes her usual sinister tone.

“YOU can be sold in seconds,” she begins.

“No, wait: make that milliseconds,” Singer continues.

“The odds are that access to you — or at least the online you — is being bought and sold in less than the blink of an eye. On the Web, powerful algorithms are sizing you up, based on myriad data points: what you Google, the sites you visit, the ads you click. Then, in real time, the chance to show you an ad is auctioned to the highest bidder.

“Not that you’d know it. These days in the hyperkinetic world of digital advertising, all of this happens automatically, and imperceptibly, to most consumers.”

“Ever wonder why that same ad for a car or a couch keeps popping up on your screen? Nearly always, the answer is real-time bidding, an electronic trading system that sells ad space on the Web pages people visit at the very moment they are visiting them.”

Never mind her egregious use of Google as a verb, Singer barely even hints at the benefits of such an efficient system—jobs that wouldn’t otherwise exist, limited advertising waste, lower-cost goods and services and greater variety to name a few.

Nope, she dives straight into the patently ridiculous idea of an Internet-advertising caste system where only Brahmins get the good deals, courtesy of a representative of the Electronic Frontier Foundation,

“’As you profile more and more people, you’ll start to segregate people into ‘the people you can get money out of’ and ‘the people you can’t get money out of,’ ” says Dan Auerbach, a staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital civil rights group in San Francisco, who formerly worked in digital ad data-mining. ‘That is one of the dangers we should be worried about.’”

So let’s get this straight: Advertisers figuring out how to avoid people from whom they’ll never get a dime is dangerous?

But wait. There’s more. Advertisers figuring out who they can get a dime from is dangerous, too.

“[P]rivacy advocates argue that real-time bidding is more problematic than direct mail because it often involves dozens of business-to-business companies — whose names most consumers have never heard of — collecting information and making instant decisions about them,” Singer wrote. “The concern, advocates say, is that the very same automated bidding system that can distinguish coffee drinkers from, say, tea drinkers, and set different prices to show them ads, is also capable of distinguishing shopaholics or people in debt and potentially auctioning them to high-interest payday lenders.”

If there’s an argument here, it’s over predatory lending, not advertising.

And what New York Times marketing hack job would be complete without omnipresent privacy zealot Jeff Chester:

“’Online consumers are being bought and sold like chattel,’ says Jeffrey Chester, the executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a consumer group in Washington that has filed a complaint about real-time bidding with the Federal Trade Commission. ‘It’s dehumanizing.’”

Why is Chester always allowed to pop his head up in these pieces like this and make absurd claims without ever having to back them up?

Chattel? Maybe that would explain how I woke up in a stranger’s closet in Cleveland recently. I was sold by an online ad auctioneer. And here I thought it was the drinking.

And how is someone getting an ad for something they’re more likely to want dehumanizing? It’s not. But Chester is never held up to any sort of journalistic standards.

There is a reason Singer allows Chester to make baseless, ridiculous-on-their-face claims. It’s because she makes them herself.

Consider the following dozy of a second-to-last paragraph:

“[T]he prospect of ubiquitous real-time bidding — online, on mobile devices and eventually on Web-enabled televisions — also hastens our transition to a totally traceable society. What we read and how we spend our spare time used to be private. Now those activities are becoming windows through which marketers scrutinize, appraise and vie to influence us for a price. Soon there may be no personal spaces left for our private thoughts.”

No personal space for our private thoughts? What the hell is she even talking about?

Think about that assertion for a moment.

Oh, wait, don’t think about it. Otherwise you might get sold like chattel and we know how dehumanizing that can be.


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