Baskin the Truth

baskin Jonathan Salem Baskin, pictured at right, is a marketing consultant. Today, he voiced the system, ala Fred Taylor and Eric Schmidt, on Advertising Age:

Our snooping puts the National Security Agency to shame.

From the level of the internet service provider, through to social-media platforms and websites, and including apps, ads and clickable content (like videos), we collect a vast amount of information on consumers’ online behavior (and their geophysical location), then use it to tee-up search results, info and ads to millions of people millions of times every day … ideally to each one of them uniquely so. We don’t do it to keep anybody safe, however. We do it to sell stuff. It’s the mercenary make-money benefit we gain through all of that non-commercial friending and conversing we do with consumers.

We call it “improving user experience,” and not only are entire business monetization plans based on it (like Facebook), it’s the driver of our hopes for Big Data selling things to people who no longer want to be sold to. Yet the only time we talk about it is when we ask consumers to accept usage terms, and then only in the dense secret code of mouseprint that is to disclosure what James Joyce’s “Ulysses” is to clarity. We tell them little, hope they’ll understand even less, and then we have the audacity to claim that they’re OK with it when we ask them.

Our hope is that they’ll stay unaware of the information they give away or, at worst, maintain a belief that it’s worth doing so in exchange for ads and other content that’s somewhat pre-qualified to be interesting to them. But there’s a fine line between convenience and manipulation, and the foundational idea of “consumer choice” loses its meaning if that choice isn’t truly free.

That’s some serious honesty there, folks.

And, while he certainly doesn’t favor the proper answer — public ire and public enterprise — arriving, Baskin isn’t entirely foolish about the prospects, either:

If we didn’t think that blurring that line was a potential bomb, why are we so shy about discussing it, and almost congenitally incapable of making sure that consumers understand the breadth and depth (and outcomes) of our snooping?

Just like the NSA’s programs, it can’t stay secret forever. Imagine if a commercially-savvy whistle-blower emerged with detailed proof of how user data were collected, shared and then exploited by a variety of businesses and, somehow, connected it back to illustrate the ways consumer choices are limited, while unfairly promoting purchases. What if The Yes Men, AdBusters, or some other, new culture-busting group chose to attack data tools with publicity stunts and videos that got peoples’ attention?

Baskin’s proposal is, of course, to use marketing to market marketing:

We marketers don’t talk about this issue much, probably because it’s so complicated and thorny. But it haunts our best hopes for the future. And, while people may let Snowden’s tale end up a somewhat distant espionage adventure, the scarier story is what’s done to every consumer in the name of efficient commerce. Without a far more creative and strategic approach to telling it, I fear others (or other events) will tell it for brands.

That story doesn’t have a happy ending.

If all this is not a script for action, I don’t know what is…

4 Replies to “Baskin the Truth”

  1. If you thought Facebook hurt already, wait until people start willingly, knowingly posting their own unpaid product placement, instead of merely doing it by accident.

    An interesting version of the internet would be a net by invitation only, with access (not merely connection) fees. I scrapped a novel based around that a while back, but it was fun. A net with a general worldwide chatroom, fixed avatars, and zero advertising, because all the costs were paid up front.

  2. Hm, I am suprised he is so blunt. Is it because it is a professional publication and they don’t expect anyone who has not drunk the koolaid to read it? But surely this is not a defence.

    Perhaps he feels the cat is so far out of the bag that no meaningful change of course is possible? Or that the systems have grown so complex that any pushback will be incremental patching at best?

  3. Marla, I would wager he sells his services as a truth-teller, and that this column is merely an attempt to boost those credentials.

    His major error, of course, is his lack of proper media analysis. The corporate media will almost always run stories about governmental corruption, even when the story tends to undermine overclass interests in that realm. Government-bashing is a very major part of the corporate capitalist ideological effort.

    The corporate media will NEVER run serious reporting on private-sector spying, for the obvious reasons. Hence, barring a social movement, there will be no storm against corporate data mining.

  4. Here is a little Facebook episode that happened to me today, which I think is creepy and shocking even against the backdrop of the honesty above.

    As you know, for some time now, facebook uses face recognition technology to automatically tag – or to suggest tagging people.

    If this is not creepy enough by itself, consider the fact that today it worked beautifully in recognizing a childhood photo of a friend of mine. The reasons this was shocking are:

    1) This friend is not active on facebook and does not have too many pictures to begin with (maybe 2-4, all recent)
    2) The recent part is key, because that the photo that got auto-tagged was a childhood photo…
    3) From a class picture made with film camera
    4) then photographed with digital camera

    So, the face recognition technology now is good enough to properly connect an obese (unfortunately), bald, with mustaches, adult to his svelte childhood photo in a class picture amidst 30 other kids, in a photo of a film camera photo 30 years ago!

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