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Naked Consumer: How Our Private Lives Become Public Commodities


One week after the birth of his second daughter, author Erik Larson stepped out of his front door to find a sample package of Luvs diapers, courtesy of Procter & Gamble. How does a company know the most intimate details of family life? In The Naked Consumer, Larson turns the tables on the snoops and spies: Who are these people who annually record the due dates of 900,000 women in a "Young Family Index," rent each of our names 152 times a year, and make telemarketing pitches to 18,000,000 of us every day? And ...
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One week after the birth of his second daughter, author Erik Larson stepped out of his front door to find a sample package of Luvs diapers, courtesy of Procter & Gamble. How does a company know the most intimate details of family life? In The Naked Consumer, Larson turns the tables on the snoops and spies: Who are these people who annually record the due dates of 900,000 women in a "Young Family Index," rent each of our names 152 times a year, and make telemarketing pitches to 18,000,000 of us every day? And who are the people who have transformed coupons for our favorite items into tools of espionage? Why do we Americans, who claim to revere privacy so much, allow ourselves to be filmed, taped, and analyzed by private-sector corporations seeking no loftier achievement than to sell us the same old toothpaste? Just as the advertising industry focused on motivation research in the 1950s, today corporate America relies on mass surveillance to sell its products. As consumer researchers systematically violate our privacy, erode our civil rights, and reinforce class stereotypes, they produce a business culture that shies away from risk and innovation and pays more attention to manipulating our needs and values. Erik Larson's penetrating study chronicles this wildly obsessive and frighteningly intrusive pursuit of the American buyer: how companies use spies, hidden cameras, even sonar and EEG machines to understand what makes shoppers tick - and how, in the process, they've accelerated the blanding of America.

Some companies gather and sell personal information to assist businesses in their marketing campaigns. It this American business at its finest, or simply a horrible invasion of our privacy? This shocking book will make readers think twice before writing their next check or going to the grocery store.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Consumer espionage, practiced on virtually every American, is one of the nation's most powerful industries, contends former Wall Street Journal journalist Larson in this alarming and compelling expose. According to him, Nielsen nightly ratings alone determine a $10 billion share of the total of $238.7 billion spent in 1990 by U.S. companies on all forms of promotion. Instead of concentrating on offering better goods and services, he charges, companies develop invasive marketing and motivation research to manipulate our needs, values and shopping habits.'' Using data from the Census Bureau, postal and telephone services, banks, hospitals, legal deeds, and political and direct mail lists of all kinds, along with human and electronic spies, marketing experts create psychographics of individuals and groups, which reveal intimate, personal details about ethnicity, past and present income, credit, health, family status and ways of life. This information then serves as the indispensable basis for insidious commercial appeals that exploit consumers' fears, vanity and greed. To avoid critical erosion of our civil liberties, Larson contends, we must control information technology through legislation. (Oct.)
Library Journal
Larson, a business journalist, takes a somewhat paranoid look at how market researchers and giant databanks invade our privacy and compile vast amounts of information that could be used against individuals or groups. However, in spite of being studied like bugs, consumers still manage to confound the researchers. While Larson acknowledges that, if marketing campaigns were perfectly aimed, people would receive ads for products that they wanted, and that they might even welcome this attention, the effort to find these customers is viewed as sinister, because of the chance of the wrong people accessing the information. David Duke's candidacy is cited as an example of the danger. Larson also explores and deplores political pollsters' effects on elections. This title might interest both market researchers and the public because of its detailed accounts of ongoing research. It would have appeal in public libraries with business or consumer collections.-- Sue McKimm, Cuyahoga Cty. P.L., Cleveland
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780140233032
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 2/28/1994
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 349,833
  • Product dimensions: 5.38 (w) x 7.72 (h) x 0.72 (d)

Meet the Author

Erik Larson
Erik Larson has an uncanny ability to find riveting stories lurking in rarely-explored corners of American history. From the devastating hurricane he recounted in Isaac’s Storm to the exploits of a monstrous serial killer in Devil in the White City, Erik Larson is proving that a book doesn’t have to be fictional to be wildly entertaining.


Often times, truth is indeed stranger than fiction. Take the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, Illinois. The fair was the groundbreaking birthplace of such things as neon lights and the Ferris Wheel; a wonderland of futuristic technology and architecture. It was also the playground of a demented murderer who set up his very own chamber of torture within striking distance of the fair. This bizarre dichotomy of creation and destruction is what enticed Erik Larson to tell the twisted tale of the 1893 World's Fair in his fascinating fourth book Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America.

Journalist Larson's work displays a fascination with the ways various forms of violence affect every day life. His second book Lethal Passage: The Story of a Gun is an exploration of gun culture throughout American history, using a horrendous incident involving a machine-gun toting 16-year old as its uniting thread. His next book, the griping, critically acclaimed Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History, detailed one of the worst natural disasters in American history, a hurricane that hit Galveston Texas in 1900 leaving between 6,000 and 10,000 people dead. However, when Larson first encountered the story of Dr. Henry H. Holmes, he was reluctant to use it as the basis for one of his books. "I started doing some research, and I came across the serial killer in this book, Dr. H. H. Holmes," he told Powell' "I immediately dismissed him because he was so over-the-top bad, so luridly outrageous. I didn't want to do it. I didn't want to do a slasher book. It crossed the line into murder-porn. So I kept looking, and I became interested in a different murder that actually had a hurricane connection, where I of course got distracted by the hurricane and wrote Isaac's Storm."

When Larson completed Isaac's Storm and began researching ideas for his next book, he began reading about the 1853 World's Fair. Hooked by the numerous colorful characters and amazing occurrences surrounding the fair, Larson decided he would use it as the subject for his fourth book. Still, he had little interest in telling a straight chronological play-by-play of the fair's creation. So, he resolved to revisit the subject that had so repulsed him prior to writing Isaac's Storm.

Dr. Henry H. Holmes was a heinous modern monster. Just west of the fair, he built the mockingly named "World's Fair Hotel" where he would torture his victims by any number of means. The grotesque hotel was equipped with its very own gas chamber, dissection table, and crematorium. As abhorrent as Holmes was, Larson could not resist the jarring juxtaposition of this remorseless killer and the fair.

The resulting book Devil in the White City is both a richly detailed history and a chilling yarn as unbelievable and spellbinding as any work of fiction. The book was both a finalist for the National Book Award and a Number 1 New York Times bestseller. It was garnered nearly universal raves from The New York Times, Publisher's Weekly, Esquire, The Chicago Sun Times, and The San Francisco Chronicle, among many, many others.

Perhaps the most awe-inspiring aspect of Devil in the White City is the fact that the book is an accurate history that also manages to be a riveting page-turner. As Larson says, "I write to be read. I'm quite direct about that. I'm not writing to thrill colleagues or to impress the professors at the University of Iowa; that's not my goal." Larson's goal was to render a fascinating story, and he succeeded admirably with Devil in the White City.

Good To Know

As entertaining as Larson's historical works are, he currently has little interest in expanding into fiction. "The research [involved in nonfiction] appeals to me," he told Powell' "I love looking for pieces of things in far-flung archives -- but the beauty is that the complexity of the characters is there. You don't have to make it up."

As thoroughly detailed and well-researched as Larson's books are, it is hard to believe that he does not employ an assistant. Every detail in his books was gleaned by the author, himself.

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    1. Hometown:
      Seattle, Washington
    1. Date of Birth:
      January 1, 1954
    2. Place of Birth:
      Brooklyn, New York
    1. Education:
      B.A., University of Pennsylvania, 1976; M.S., Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, 1978

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  • Posted October 18, 2011

    Rather outdated

    Since this book was published in 1994 technology for tracking customers has advanced by leaps and bounds, and as a result, this book is pretty much out of date.

    I bought the book because I liked The Devil in the White City (recommended) and Isaac's Storm (so-so) also by Larson.

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