Black Ops Advertising

Issue section: 

The internet is “nothing more than a purveyor of sales messages”, says Mara Einstein. “Your phone is an advertising medium” and social media “less about community than commerce”, and she is right.

Little wonder that Facebook’s former head of data, Jeff Hammerbacher, complained, “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.”

Einstein was a marketing director at MTV and at US TV network NBC before becoming an academic, so she knows the sector. Her book is a useful primer on digital marketing — albeit light on politics and privacy — with everything you might want to know about “stealth marketing” (masquerading as content), “native advertising” (integrated with content), “buzz marketing” (to get you to push products to friends) and so on.

She recognises it’s all for profit, noting Facebook “continuously manipulates its algorithm to improve profitability”, that “amassing friends on Facebook or followers on Twitter is about creating an audience for advertisers” and “like” buttons are “a means to update product placement”.
An entire industry of data brokers and ad exchanges feeds off our “click streams”, using cookie-driven “retargeting” to keep ads loading as we move around the web or deploying “programmatic marketing” to drive ad placement, using machine-learned algorithms and auctions conducted as web pages load. Acxiom, the biggest exchange, claimed last year to “execute one trillion data transactions a week”. Other firms marry online data to that from offline sources such as loyalty cards.

Yet none of this is enough. The industry wants more. Tech companies are developing “solutions” to the difficulty of tracking mobiles, since cookies tend to be app-specific — working with one but not another. Others are developing cross-device tracking, including “inaudible tracking” — the use of sound frequencies you can’t hear but devices can pick up.

Ad blockers are also a challenge, so Facebook is working on ways to make it harder to avoid ads and integrate advertising ever more tightly with “content”. Video is all-pervasive because video ads are harder to block, especially when embedded in articles.

Einstein misses out the big business behind this. But you should know digital ad spending is poised to top $200 billion a year and, of the spending outside China, 72 percent (and rising) goes to Google and Facebook. In July, US telecom giant Verizon paid $4.8 billion for Yahoo in hope of creating a rival.

Few of us feel suckered by advertising, yet a December 2015 study suggested only one in ten can recognise a native ad when they see one, and 14 years after Google introduced paid-for search (AdWords) two out of five can’t distinguish paid from organic search.

Einstein writes, “There is no free movie, news report or factoid. We pay by being forced to engage with an unending stream of advertising blurred to be indistinguishable from news. We pay by providing our personal data to marketers. We pay by making personal interactions into market transactions, remaining in a constant state of buying and selling prettied up to look like sharing.”