If You Must Shop…

…turn off your phone.

Helpful story in The New York Times today about the progress of corporate capitalist behavioral tracking. Lowlights:

Nordstrom’s experiment is part of a movement by retailers to gather data about in-store shoppers’ behavior and moods, using video surveillance and signals from their cellphones and apps to learn information as varied as their sex, how many minutes they spend in the candy aisle and how long they look at merchandise before buying it.

RetailNext, based in San Jose, Calif., adds data from shoppers’ smartphones to deduce even more specific patterns. If a shopper’s phone is set to look for Wi-Fi networks, a store that offers Wi-Fi can pinpoint where the shopper is in the store, within a 10-foot radius, even if the shopper does not connect to the network, said Tim Callan, RetailNext’s chief marketing officer.

The store can also recognize returning shoppers, because mobile devices send unique identification codes when they search for networks. That means stores can now tell how repeat customers behave and the average time between visits.

RetailNext also uses data to map customers’ paths; perhaps the shopper is 70 percent likely to go right immediately, or 14 percent likely to linger at a display.

Cameras have become so sophisticated, with sharper lenses and data-processing, that companies can analyze what shoppers are looking at, and even what their mood is.

For example, Realeyes, based in London, which analyzes facial cues for responses to online ads, monitors shoppers’ so-called happiness levels in stores and their reactions at the register. Synqera, a start-up in St. Petersburg, Russia, is selling software for checkout devices or computers that tailors marketing messages to a customer’s gender, age and mood, measured by facial recognition.

Of course, this being the NYT, they have to conclude the report by dismissing its meaning. Hence, they end by quoting an über-odious mommy-marketer:

“I would just love it if a coupon pops up on my phone,” said Linda Vertlieb, 30, a blogger in Philadelphia, who said that she was not aware of the tracking methods, but that the idea did not bother her. Stores are “trying to sell, so that makes sense,” she said.

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…

AT&T = Market-Totalitarian Spyware

eye spy Walter Brasch said it well: “The government’s knowledge of the lives of individuals is little more than the equivalent to a children’s coloring book compared to the library that private companies have on everyone.”

Today, AT&T — the corporation that employs unfunny, phony kindergartners acting scriptedly silly to make the radically false claim that its services are somehow better than those of its fellow bloated, crappy, vastly overpriced, marketing-intensive capitalist telecom oligopolies — admitted it is plunging fully into the private spying game. Per Engadget:

In an update on its Public Policy Blog, AT&T disclosed that it may [TCT ed: “may” — ROFL!] begin selling anonymous user data to retailers and marketers, with the end goal being “to deliver more relevant advertising to… customers.” The carrier is far from the first to sell aggregate information — here’s looking at you, Verizon — but the provider is unique in combining data on TV, WiFi and wireless usage. The company said it could also provide aggregate info about users’ app usage and U-Verse info.

Also notable in the new privacy policy: AT&T notes that it could sell information about individual users, with the stipulation that the data would still be kept anonymous, and media research companies would only be able to use that info in aggregate reports. While this is hardly a case of AT&T pushing new privacy boundaries, users can opt out of the program.

For any souls unlucky enough — ala your faithful TCT editor — to labor under this particular profit fief, here is the home for opting out.

(Behold the difficulty of many of the “available” opt-outs!)

Theses on NSA

nsa 1. No shit, Sherlock. WTF did you think they were doing this whole time?

2. NSA’s operation is tiny and one-dimensional compared with the data-gathering happening in the marketing operations of the 1,000 largest business corporations.

3. Much of the data being gathered by NSA already exists — and is submitted by — corporations like Google and the cell-phone squatter-oligopolies/profit ranches.

4. One excellent answer to all this spying would be to empower the US Postal Service to set up and run a national, not-for-profit, no-ads, no-spying internet and cellular network, with the explicit charge of out-competing the private sector.

5. We await any kind of left stirring…

6. “Market totalitarianism” is not hyperbole.

Market Totalitarianism Update

pigbro The usual news, per Advertising Age:

Bluefin Labs is exploring the relationships between listener and speaker, orator and audience, marketer and audience, and mass media and audience by looking at about 3 billion social-media comments a month and, from that, filtering and mapping about 13.7 million comments that pertained to TV and/or commercials.

That mapping of social-media conversations to TV shows and commercials is called the TV genome; Bluefin was founded at MIT as a result of language-acquisition research MIT Researcher Deb Roy did on how his child had learned to talk.

“Mass media has a tremendous benefit in that it reaches many people at the same time, but one of the drawbacks is the feedback loop from audience back to speaker and communicator is essentially broken, or at least you lose much of it,” said Tom Thai, VP-marketing and business development at Bluefin. The idea behind Bluefin is to offer a deeper look at the audience feedback, beyond numbers of viewers and demography. Put simply: It is focused on taking the conversations and chatter that happen in social media and tying them back to the stimulus that caused that conversation on TV — either shows or ads.

The challenge in all of this: help machines understand the semantic layer, or the what the conversation is about. As he describes it, the first input is TV, the second input is social media. The space in the middle is the semantic barrier.

Bluefin itself:

Today, the Bluefin technology platform has a view into over 3 billion public-facing social media comments each month, tied to a continuously growing video fingerprint archive of over 200,000 distinct airings of TV shows and commercials. Bluefin currently ingests and performs video fingerprinting of close to 50 U.S. TV broadcast and cable networks, with plans to achieve full coverage of the national TV market.

Thus, for marketers and TV content producers, Bluefin’s technology solves a problem that has eluded the TV industry for more than 60 years: how to close the audience feedback loop of TV mass media.

Bluefin is currently running exclusive private pilots with several Fortune 100 global brands, leading ad agencies, and TV networks.

Such was the publicly subsidized cutting edge of social science in the United States in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Your grandchildren, should any ever come to exist, will be amazed, and furious.

Progress of the Corporate Spies

corps Here are a few recent items on the most predictable of all human events, the growth of big business marketing.

An ex-Yahoo spy gone “independent” reports this in Ad Age:

Well, thanks to the rise of data and audience buying, there’s a relatively new offering now available to marketers called search retargeting. Search retargeting is the ability to target display ads based on user search history. This allows marketers to show advertisements to the right “in market” consumers and entice users who are already looking to buy a specific product or use a service. This combination of search and display results in the acquisition of new customers and drives targeted awareness across all sites.

With this in mind, other “news” is rather easy to reckon:

For Facebook users, the free ride is over.

For years, the privately held company founded by Mark Zuckerberg in a Harvard dorm room put little effort into ad sales, focusing instead on making its service irresistible to users. It worked. Today more than 600 million people have Facebook accounts. The average user spends seven hours a month posting photos, chatting with friends, swapping news links and sending birthday greetings to classmates.

Now the Palo Alto company is looking to cash in on this mother lode of personal information by helping advertisers pinpoint exactly whom they want to reach. This is no idle boast. Facebook doesn’t have to guess who its users are or what they like. Facebook knows, because members volunteer this information freely — and frequently — in their profiles, status updates, wall posts, messages and “likes.”

It’s now tracking this activity, shooting online ads to users based on their demographics, interests, even what they say to friends on the site — sometimes within minutes of them typing a key word or phrase.

Facebook’s ability to pinpoint paying customers has dazzled some small-business owners, including Chris Meyer. Over the last 18 months, the Minneapolis wedding photographer had Facebook aim his ads specifically at female users who divulged the following information about themselves on the social networking site: college graduates, aged 24 to 30, who had just gotten engaged and lived within a 50-mile radius of Minneapolis.

Meyer says his $1,700 ad buy generated $110,000 in sales.

“I could not have built my business without Facebook,” he said.

And, as always, the whole enterprise rests on exploited emotions and false promises:

[A] new study, led by Thomas V. Pollet of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, examined 117 people age 18 to 63. They filled out an extensive questionnaire about the time they spend on instant messaging and social network sites, the number of relationships they had overall and the closeness of those relationships.

The researchers found that spending a lot of time online was not linked to having a larger number of “offline” friends. Moreover, the relationships of people who socialized online weren’t any closer or stronger than people who didn’t socialize online.

And on this:

The social media giant Facebook, for example, has nine third-party data centers in the US, with plans to build a tenth in Oregon. Current estimates are that Facebook uses 60,000 servers to help its more than 500 million members reconnect with people they didn’t even like in high school.

The company’s data centers range from from 10,000 square feet to more than 35,000 square feet, and their energy use is enormous. The average leased data center uses between 2.25 megawatts of power and 6 megawatts of power. This could provide electricity for one month to somewhere between 1,730 and 4,615 homes.

Google is thought to have 36 data centers.