I get great pleasure from imagining a world with no advertising. Sure, there’s the occasional commercial that gets me to smile, but most ads make me feel like I’m being talked down to; instead of addressing me in an honest, straightforward way, they try to draw my attention to whatever they’re hawking through gimmicky manipulations — for instance, paying a celebrity to announce how dearly he adores a certain car insurance, gas-guzzling SUV, or cat litter. Other ads try to freak me out because my breath smells, my armpits reek, and my hair isn’t glossy enough to earn me a kiss. No need to list the other approaches ad agencies employ; we’ve all internalized the myriad strategies used to subliminally coerce us into buying stuff we don’t need or want.
The sense I get from advertising is that I’m continually being lied to, everywhere I turn. But more disturbing still is that the picture of the world offered by advertising is of a throw-away consumer culture based on instant gratification, presented as a kind of heavenly paradise. We are in the midst of the Sixth Great Extinction, our country is perpetually at war, Wall Street’s investment culture has revealed itself to be irredeemably morally bankrupt, and through it all, we are bathed by a perpetual stream of consumerist messaging that proclaims we live in a material paradise. All you have to do is buy the right beer, and babelicious models climb out of your fridge. Shopping sets you free.
But despite the relentless propaganda, at this point most Americans accept that our version of consumer culture is unsustainable. Not everyone sees this, certainly, but for decades the number has been growing, and some demographers think this long-time minority perspective became the majority in 2008, the year of the Obama election, which is a convenient marker for the shift. And yet, we are assaulted by more ads than ever. They appear on eggs and apples at the store, arrive as cell phone spam, sneak up as product placement in the movies — some sources say that the average American is exposed to as many as three thousand ad messages a day. They blare at us from every conceivable angle: the sides of buildings, the floors of subway platforms, the back doors of public bathroom stalls. They shake, flash, and squeal in mock delight, aching to convince us that our deepest needs can be satisfied on the supermarket shelf. We’re only one kitchen cleanser away from having the time of our lives.
The cumulative effect of this non-stop assault, which begins at birth and continues through our final moments, is to make us numb. We know we can’t trust ads, but we get suckered in by them; ultimately, they achieve what they are designed to do, which is to sell product. Our understandable response is to develop a thick wall of defense against their come-ons. We become sophisticated critics, armed with irony and a knee-jerk cynicism, knowing better than to accept an ad at face value. At the same time, we can’t imagine an alternative to the consumerism they promote, and so fall prey to their manipulations again and again. As good cynics, we realize that any effort to remake society is bound to fail, so we might as well stock up on the latest disposable pleasure and make sure to get our money’s worth. But seeds have been planted for an alternative worth considering.
Today, thanks to the Internet, once I know what I want, I can usually find it pretty quickly. For instance, it took me about ninety seconds to discover that Americans are exposed to three thousand ads a day, and I was then able to compare that number to estimates from other sources. Search engines have become extremely effective at connecting people to what they’re looking for. Recommendation engines, like the kind on Amazon.com that suggests books you might be interested in, based on your previous purchases, have steadily improved, linking you to music and books you probably will like, people you could date, schools to attend, cars to buy. These matchmaking technologies might not be able to look into your soul and surprise you with an offer out of left field, but once you express, for example, an interest in permaculture, automated systems are now quite good at letting you know about new permaculture books and DVDs, and (in theory) permaculture courses, groups, gardening supplies — whatever a budding permaculturist could want.
Matchmaking systems of this kind are popping up everywhere online. Unfortunately, they are guided by the same manipulative practices and questionable ethics endemic to the advertising industry. Companies engaged in digital advertising, like Google, Microsoft, and Facebook, do their best to surreptitiously track the online behavior of whoever they can, creating detailed profiles of each of us that will help them capture our interests and predict our future purchases. Beacon and cookie technology installed by third parties stalks us as we go from website to website, following where we go and watching what we click on. So if I spend a lot of time on car websites, I might notice that while visiting CNN.com, MSNBC.com, or YouTube, suddenly a legion of car ads appear. Marketers will spend extra for these targeted ads, because it helps them narrow in on likely customers, making the ad-buying process less like firing buckshot. And if you do want to buy a new car, all the car ads suddenly flooding your screen might be useful.
But these matchmaking systems, as they currently exist, have serious drawbacks. For a start, you have no idea what these profiles say about you, or what is being done with them. The data collected about you, usually without your knowledge, is owned by the company that collects it, which can do whatever it pleases with that information, including sell it to whoever pays. The lawyers at the Electronic Frontiers Foundation (EFF), the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), and other privacy advocates are rightly outraged by how little control we have over the data about us that streams across the Internet. They are also frustrated by how little the public seems to care about it. People tend to prioritize convenience over privacy, and they don’t expect that the owners of these profiles will abuse them, or at least not so badly that a real crisis results.
At the same time, it is also true that mainstream media has barely touched this story, aside from the occasional article in the Wall Street Journal or New York Times, so who knows how widely understood the situation actually is. Certainly, it is in the interest of media companies to keep concern low, since targeted ads bring them higher rates at a time when their traditional business model is melting down. But it is sadly predictable that abuses will occur without appropriate oversight, just as they did recently in the housing market and on Wall Street, to disastrous effect.
You can expect that soon profiles about you will be compiled with an expansiveness and efficiency that would have made the East German secret service green with envy. How will that information be used? Will that profile be reviewed by an employer to discover if you take part in “questionable” behavior, or will a landlord check into your “desirability” before you sign a new lease? If they can, while reducing financial risk and reassuring investors, it’s hard to believe they would resist.
Meanwhile, the ads that get pumped out through this targeting system are unchanged, as annoying and manipulative as ever. And as the number of ad messages we receive grows, the attention that any one attracts drops. Madison Avenue has been complaining for years about how hard it is to cut through the clutter in this crowded environment, that it forces them to push out more and more ads if they hope to have an impact and get precious clicks. But why should you click? Ads swarm around us like gnats, asking to be swatted away. Your first impulse is to not click, because you know ads can’t be trusted. The average click-through rate for an online ad is a fraction of 1 percent; a response by more than 2 percent is considered a phenomenal success. Think about it: over 98 percent of viewers prefer to not respond to the interactive ads they see.
But instead of bending matchmaking technology to the purposes of the old marketing paradigm, emerging technologies could support a different model, one that respects our privacy, acknowledges our intelligence, and responds to actual needs, not manufactured desires. Imagine how different things would be if marketing messages had integrity, if their claims were vetted by trusted sources, and if they informed you about things you really want, so you could evaluate whether a product is right for you. Instead of being on the receiving end of an endless stream of crafty seductions that hope to trigger a purchase, you would be exposed to just a few that are clear and informative, and only for products that you deliberately express an interest in. An ad’s claims would be validated by independent third parties, like Consumer Reports, and these ratings would be easy to find, even if they are less than favorable.
You’re probably thinking: forget it, that’s impossible. And, of course, you’re probably right. But before you dismiss this prospect entirely, please join me for a thought experiment. Suppose that:
* Instead of an anonymous corporation owning your personal data, and deciding what to do with it without your permission, you control the data in your digital profile. You choose to “track yourself” as you go from place to place online, collecting the geologs from your mobile phone, your social network links, your current address and other relevant data in your profile. With this control, you get to decide what information is in your digital profile, what information can be shared with whom and under what conditions. This is not a pipe dream; companies are appearing that can provide these services. For instance, a new class of services is emerging that offers data banking to consumers; just as your money is not made invalid when you move it from one bank to another, your data can be portable in the same way between service providers. Companies such as Mydex, Azigo, Personal.com and Singly are offering the first wave of digital data banking services of this kind, and are an encouraging sign of things to come.
* Instead of being on the receiving end of a relentless stream of unwelcome ads, you use your digital profile to express interests and needs, soliciting information about the product categories that matter to you. Rather than being solicited by marketing companies who push out ads based on their best guesses about what you might respond to, you only view the marketing messages you request. It is well known that pursuing “qualified leads” of this kind is a far more effective way to reach a customer than today’s buck-shot model.
* Instead of producing ads that compete for your attention by making cheesy come-ons or questionable claims — while communicating next to nothing that can be trusted — advertisers agree to follow a code of conduct. Promotional claims are validated by independent third parties. Today, there are scores of certification systems that evaluate claims about product safety, greenness, organic materials, localism, and fair labor practices. Twenty-first-century Green Seal stamps would be printed on every package and be a click away from any ad banner. Product information becomes easily available and transparent — not because the government compells it, but because the absence of third-party certification signals consumers not to buy a product.
* Instead of staring blankly at a new product, unable to learn whether friends and others you trust have tried and liked it, you have access to a list of people you know that says whether they give the product a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down.” Every product, of course, has mixed reviews. But you can easily find the percentage of people whose shopping prowess you trust that have endorsed a particular product — not because they get paid for it, but because they want you to support the best green cleanser, the best locally built furniture, the most effective water-saving washing machine. Again, this information is managed through your user-centric digital profile.
* Instead of pushing sales messages onto an unsuspecting public, marketing companies act as brokers that work on behalf of both the producer and the consumer, bringing the two into contact. If you are in the market for a new rug, for instance, your interest is broadcast to floor cover marketing companies, which respond with information about their clients. Based on your desired price point, material of choice, and design type, the marketers target the messages they send to you. Because they have agreed to follow a code of conduct, the ads are substantive instead of gimmicky. Clicking on the banner brings you to a web page that conveys what you need to know about the product, along with a video and a list of stores near you that stock it. The best marketers are known for the effectiveness of their matchmaking capabilities in a trusted environment.
This approach would fundamentally alter the way we shop. The difference was made clear to me by Kaliya Hamlin, organizer of the semi-annual Internet Identity Workshop conferences in the Bay Area, and one of the leading analysts of digital identity trends. The current model, she explained, can be shown in a simple diagram with three nodes (see Diagram 1): the buyer, the producer, and marketer, which is the sole intermediary between the other two, sending messages to potential buyers with little to no idea who the buyers are, hoping to convert a sale. Note that the communication from the marketer to the buyer is in one direction, with the buyer at the receiving end, unable to respond or participate in any kind of dialogue. In many instances, the marketer is supported by services that provide digital dossiers on millions of people that help them to target customers. For instance, Experian proudly boasts that it has detailed profiles of 2.1 billion people which it offers for sale to support targeted web advertising.
The alternative model, made possible by digital identity technology, introduces two new intermediaries between the buyer and the producer (see Diagram 2). One is the buyer’s agent, which represents the interest of the buyer and broadcasts the message the buyer is looking for a particular product — such as a dark blue organic wool rug that is 6 x 9 feet. This agent is the trusted broker of the buyer’s personal data (its “data banker”), and it only shares this information under the buyer’s direction. The second new intermediary is the producer’s agent, which broadcasts information about the producer’s products to buyers’ agents across the Internet, looking for matches. This product information would be detailed and vetted by third parties, and should include the product’s environmental impact, labor conditions, consumer evaluations, and more. So before the buyer makes a decision about whether to purchase that rug, she knows how it was manufactured, the materials that went into it, and what other people think about it. The key to this model is that the Buyer’s Agent holds and is aware of personal data buyer, and that the Producer’s Agent does not. A fully functioning market like this eliminates the need for services that sell digital dossiers to marketers, such as Experian. The transactions could take place online, but just as likely, the producer’s agent could draw potential buyers to come by brick-and-mortar retail outlets to experience the products in person.
You can see how a system like this could grow to include all of the essential products you use, from toilet paper and face cream to clothing and hardware. The technology exists today to turn our marketing paradigm upside down — or, perhaps more accurately, right side up. The key innovation is for digital profile data to move easily from place to place online, under the control and ownership of the person it is about. Over the past few years, a number of components of this potential new systems have emerged from forums like the Internet Identity Workshop, OASIS, W3C and the World Economic Forum Rethinking Personal Data project. The cores of these systems are built by privacy activists to keep governments and corporations from holding information about you without permission. The challenge to this twenty-first-century marketing paradigm is not technical. Rather, it is social. As a society, are we ready to apply existing technology to transform how we exchange goods?
Once products are connected to people’s actual needs, the entire thrust of messages that marketers send would change. No more need for misleading claims. The tenor of advertising would shift to propositions coming from a place of integrity. At the same time, the rationale for wasteful, flashy packaging is eliminated. (You bought a computer to send email, not to revel in the layers of perfectly sculpted plastic shards that you had to tear out of the box to get at it.) One possible by product of such a system could be that, without society’s relentless call to consume, people might realize that they would be happier with less than they currently possess. Why burden yourself with your own vacuum cleaner, lawn mower, coffee grinder, crock pot, electric heating pad, washing machine, or any of the other myriad contraptions that clutter up the average middle-class American apartment? All it takes is a moment of reflection to realize that each is used for an hour or two a week, if that. Why not pool resources with your neighbors, put the best appliances in a hall closet, give the extras away, and replace the broken ones (they always break) with really good ones meant to last, which are worth repairing and which you would be stretched to buy on your own? At the same time, you get to know your neighbors. Less is more.
We know that America’s relationship to stuff has to change, and digital tools give us the opportunity to design the kind of marketplace we want to live with. In the process of constructing it, we transform our communities and ourselves. We heal our hearts, pursuing the path of a more transparent, less materialist society. The earth is calling us to embrace a new politics of the sacred, one which will expand the safe space where the heart can be revealed, available for connection. As hard as it might be to believe such a transformation is possible, in fact, a profound change might be closer than anyone might think, ready to be expressed in how we live our daily lives. Along the fringes, far from the shopping mall, a yearning can be felt for a different kind of commerce.
Thanks to Kaliya Hamlin for reading a draft of this article and offering extremely helpful comments and suggested revisions.
Image by Lord Jim, courtesy of Creative Commons license.