In the digital economy, individuals are asked to trade their privacy for solutions — but it is a deal that many are making without actual consent, since they do not know the range of the way companies are hoarding and profiting from their private info.
That is one debate Bob Hoffman makes in his latest book, BadMen: How Advertising Went from a Minor Annoyance to a Significant Menace. The prior U.S. marketing executive — who has worked with brands such as McDonald’s, Toyota, and PepsiCo among others — has used the freedom of retirement in the business to provide scathing indictments of its worst practices via his website. Now, he’s taking aim at the internet of monitoring that props up electronic advertising.
You call online monitoring “surveillance advertising” and advertising technology a “three-headed monster.” Why?
They are harmful for us as individuals and harmful for democratic societies as a whole. I don’t believe most people — even within the marketing business, and certainly not in the public — realize how prevalent the practice is, so far as collecting personal information about us, selling it and exploiting it for business purposes.
But people know things like ad targeting, they know they are being monitored and advertised to internet.
I don’t think they realize the extent. By way of instance, there’s a business in the U.K. known as Cambridge Analytica they have a file on each adult in the U.S. with 4,000 to 5,000 data points on each person. … From The Guardian, a girl wrote that she requested Tinder for all the information they had on her. After arm-wrestling to receive it, she obtained of advice. That is the equivalent of War and Peace. If Tinder has that much, can you imagine what Google and Facebook have on us? We’ve got no method of knowing what that info is, who they are sharing it with or selling it to. We’ve been warned about totalitarian governments. Now, we’ve got totalitarian marketing — they are collecting secret files on us. There is no precedent for understanding where this leads.
That has political consequences, too.
Here in the U.S., take the Facebook scandal with Russian interference in the election. With the advice that Facebook has on everybody, they understand what our hot buttons are. That is what makes it so dangerous: that foreign forces and other people can target individuals so specifically. That is all because of their ability to monitor us to know who we are talking to, what we’re talking about, what our interests are, and what our behaviors are.
The whole internet is built on earning money from consumer information. Is it possible to put the genie back in the bottle?
Yes. The EU is attempting to think of a model which may be effective and workable. They have two regulations in the pipeline, which might go into effect in May of 2018, known as the GDPR [General Data Protection Legislation] and ePrivacy Regulation. They’ll give consumers a lot more control over what information can be collected and shared.
Can you spot the hazards of this when you’re still in the business?
I have been out of the company four decades now. When I left, I knew that monitoring was going on but I did not understand how pervasive it was. Nonetheless I wasn’t satisfied with what was happening in online marketing: We had been under enormous pressure from our customers to get more digital, irrespective of if we actually believed it was successful. We had been labelled Luddites or dinosaurs.
What are the consequences?
I don’t think there is any question that we’ve rushed into things and we do not really understand what the consequences of it might be. The fraud is out of control. Ad fraud has increased more than 100 percent in the previous year, it’s to be $16.4-billion (U.S.) this year, up from $7.2-billion final year. The World Federation of Advertisers that in another 10 years it may be the second-biggest supply of criminal revenue on earth after drug trafficking. Another issue is waste. Dollars are wasted on non-viewable advertisements, fraud, and advertising tech middlemen that are scratching tremendous amounts of money from it. And the public is disgusted with online advertising. You will find over web-enabled apparatus equipped with ad blockers. Folks hate online advertising, and they are showing it with obstructing. And there’s the dilemma of efficacy — Pamp;G cut in digital advertising in 1 quarter, and found it had no impact on sales. Then of course there’s the problem of . Due to programmatic [automated] ad purchases, entrepreneurs can not control where their ads run. Fake news, we think it’s about political operators, however, it’s also largely about the idiotic ad tech system which provides money to people who can disperse the most sensationalistic and deceptive rubbish. They get people to visit their sites … and advertising tech takes money from quality publishers and follows individuals to crappy sites. If you pick up the stone of ad tech, these issues are crawling around under. Tracking is a element in all these issues.
So what can people really do, save for placing their electronic devices alight and moving to a shack in the woods?
Consumers should have as much electricity as entrepreneurs have online. All of us have a different tolerance for solitude. Some people today care more than others. I want us to have the ability to control how our data is utilized. It’s not that hard. You can have my credit card when I buy something from you, but I need to have the ability to dictate that I do not want you selling that to third parties, I do not want you using it for advertising purposes.
Firms like Facebook and Google say you can control that information — it is right there in your account settings.
My response is that it is way too complex for the average person to comprehend. If they were really serious about it, they would make it apparent. They would make it simple. They would not hide it behind pages and pages of language that is vague and incomprehensible terminology. It’s really tough for someone to comprehend the huge net of how this substance is shared and sold and gathered.
Do we need legislation so as to make that happen?
Absolutely. I am not heavily in favor of regulators or bureaucracy. But in this specific case it’s crucial that someone step in and do something about it, as it is becoming far too dangerous. It is more than just online marketing today. There are several gadgets gathering information about us. We’ve got smart thermostats, smart cars. It is just going to get worse if we do not do something about it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.