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‘Black Ops Advertising’ Dissects the Rise of Media Manipulation for Corporate Profit

Posted on Oct 4, 2016

By Mara Einstein

  “Black Ops Advertising” examines the covert world of the digital sell. (OR Books)

Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from “Black Ops Advertising” by Mara Einstein. “Black Ops Advertising” is published by OR Books. Click here for details.

  Black Ops Advertising
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Click a button and we can read the New York Times or watch our favorite TV show or stream the latest movie. Submit a query to Google and a world of knowledge appears on the screen, albeit algorithmically delimited. Newspaper or magazine, TV or movie, fact, tidbit, or commentary, no matter how big or small, how significant or trivial: it’s all available at our fingertips, and it’s all absolutely free.

This is the perception we have been lulled into believing. It is time to wake up. There is no free lunch, free movie, news report, or factoid. We are paying and paying dearly.

We pay with our time and our attention—a scarce and valuable resource in the twenty-first century—and the coin of the realm in today’s “attention economy.”

We pay by being forced to engage with what has become an unending stream of advertising blurred to be indistinguishable from legitimate news stories, leading to the utter skewing of our sense of reality. We pay by providing our personal data to marketers, who then use that data to sell us an increasing array of products “specifically targeted to us” by manipulating and whipsawing our emotions.

We pay by turning our relationships into monetizable opportunities, making personal interactions into market transactions, and remaining in a constant state of buying or selling, albeit one that’s been prettied up to look like sharing and making “friends.” Exaggeration? I don’t think so. Not if dating apps like Tinder exist that allow us to dismiss people with the swipe of a thumb, or apps like Peeple are created with the sole purpose to rate anyone, anytime, without their say, as if they were a plate of food or a room to rent from Airbnb. No matter where we turn in this digitally “enhanced” world, our agency—our personal ability to act freely and independently—is being quashed. We can’t choose the type of content we want to watch or read; we can’t represent who we are; we are emotionally manipulated in the name of corporate profit. This is what marketers call consumer empowerment. I heartily disagree.

Until now, we could be excused for passively interacting with whatever content appears on our mobile device or laptop. Few beyond those working in the industry knew or understood the level of stealth activity associated with digital technologies, and many of them don’t even comprehend it. I sympathize: I’m not a Luddite, but I’m not a tech person either; it all seems too complex and confusing and ultimately overwhelming.

In truth, it was designed that way. You see, we’ve been duped—and by some really smart people. Jeff Hammerbacher, Facebook’s first “research scientist” and a Harvard-trained mathematician, is widely quoted as saying, “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads . . . and it sucks.”

It’s the reason he left the company. But tricking us into clicking on ads certainly doesn’t happen only on Facebook, and manipulation doesn’t happen only at the level of content. The user interface keeps our eyes locked and our hands glued to screens big and small. In 1996, B. J. Fogg—another smart guy, this time from Stanford University—coined the term “Captology,” based on an acronym for Computers As Persuasive Technologies. His work, which has been embraced by numerous companies, uses a combination of tools to increase our interaction with a screen. These are: positive or negative motivation (pleasure or pain), ability (simplify tasks), and triggers (say, a noise cue). So every time a push notification comes through our phone, we leap from whatever we are doing to pick it up, typically in anticipation of a pleasurable reward like a text from a loved one.

Of course, it is more likely to be a come-on from a corporation. But once we’ve been triggered to pick up the phone, we’re hooked, and so we end up clicking and clicking, creating endless data and interacting with untold ads every day—and most of the time, we’re painfully unaware that that is what we are doing. It is utterly Pavlovian. Combine that addictive technology with ambiguous information, and we have content confusion writ large.

As bad as all this is, it’s about to get worse. The media industry as we know it is imploding.

Advertising and Agency

There has long been a tacit agreement media companies had with their audiences: if we sit through the commercials, the networks will provide us with high quality news and entertainment. Barring that, we buy a monthly subscription to programming like HBO or Showtime in order to avoid having to deal with commercials.

While many of us complained about this structure, in truth, it wasn’t that bad.

Commercials may be irrelevant to you or inane in their execution, but some are incredibly entertaining, such as Apple’s “1984,” Budweiser’s “Whassup,” Nike’s Michael Jordan ads, and more recently, VW’s “Darth Vader” and Old Spice’s “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like.” It doesn’t get much better than Under Armour’s Misty Copeland ad. Smart, captivating, strategically aligned advertising is typically so good that you want to watch it. And if you don’t, you can always get up and grab a beer or go to the bathroom or walk the dog.

In this scenario, no company knew in any detail who you were or what you watched or what you bought. You might see some advertising that didn’t relate directly to you, but so what? More importantly, you knew it was a commercial, and it was your choice whether or not to watch it.

At the beginning of the Internet, the high social ideal was that it would somehow exist outside this revenue model. In the boom days before the Internet bubble and even after, company business plans were drawn up without a hint of how the organization was going to generate income. Facebook is a great example here in that they didn’t try to make money for almost six years, yet they still had millions of dollars of investment capital. It was a cyberspace gold rush, but no one knew what they were mining.

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