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The Internet is often hyped as a means to enhanced consumer power: a hypercustomized media world where individuals exercise unprecedented control over what they see and do. That is the scenario media guru Nicholas Negroponte predicted in the 1990s, with his hypothetical online newspaper The Daily Me—and it is one we experience now in daily ways. But, as media expert Joseph Turow shows, the customized media environment we inhabit today reflects diminished consumer power. Not only ads and discounts but even news and entertainment are being customized by newly powerful media agencies on the basis of data we don’t know they are collecting and individualized profiles we don’t know we have. Little is known about this new industry: how is this data being collected and analyzed? And how are our profiles created and used? How do you know if you have been identified as a “target” or “waste” or placed in one of the industry’s finer-grained marketing niches? Are you, for example, a Socially Liberal Organic Eater, a Diabetic Individual in the Household, or Single City Struggler? And, if so, how does that affect what you see and do online?
Drawing on groundbreaking research, including interviews with industry insiders, this important book shows how advertisers have come to wield such power over individuals and media outlets—and what can be done to stop it.
During the early days of the Web the pattern was set for advertisers to turn profiles of Web visitors into decisions about their marketing value—in other words, their reputation. Nicholas Negroponte might have charted that potential in Being Digital, his best-selling 1995 guide to the new order, but he didn't. Neither did the public intellectuals who followed him. The result was that marketers' growing power remained hidden from public view—and it remains so to this day. At a time when concerns about privacy and the creepiness of Web tracking are making headlines, the under-the-hood forces that generate these effects remain largely unknown. It's crucial to recognize how a new advertising system arose to transform the media and our sense of self—and in the process how it has created our rising sense of unease about digital intrusiveness.
Being Digital came out only a few months after the release of Netscape Navigator, the Web browser that began to open gates to the internet for non-techies. Negroponte headed the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab, a hothouse for computer-based inventions supported by major corporations. His prognostications garnered wide respect in the mainstream media, and the fact that he overlooked advertisers' power hardly raised critical comments. He enthused instead about how communication technologies of the early twenty-first century would give us power to define ourselves; they would allow us to become the captains of our own attention, to focus our interests on what we value. "Your telephone won't ring indiscriminately," he wrote. "It will receive, sort, and perhaps respond to your incoming calls like a well-trained English butler."
Negroponte took for granted that creators of the new media technology would tilt it toward individuals' interests rather than toward those of the commercial or governmental spheres. It also made sense to him that users of the new media technology would revel in that individualism. His model for the individual's control of meaning was a virtual newspaper he foresaw called The Daily Me. A prototype in the Media Lab was a project (called "Fishwrap") that was available to MIT's population only. Fishwrap was actually not as individualistic as the phrase daily me implies. People did receive the kinds of stories that they said they wanted and that the Media Lab's computer inferred based on previous choices. In addition, they received news that others in the MIT community believed important. Still, Negroponte, his supporters, and his critics underscored the power of the users to decide the limits of their social attention, for good or bad. "The services are egocentric," noted the American Journalism Review in April 1997 about commercial versions of The Daily Me in the wake of Fishwrap. "A user chooses what he or she wants to read and can filter out other information." The developments seemed to displace the traditional attention-setting function of editors, a point that concerned traditional journalists, who worried people might ignore socially significant agendas. AJR put the concern this way: "Customized online news services allow readers to receive content tailored to their interests. But do readers risk missing important developments that don't fit their profiles?"
Pro or con, the idea that individuals would hold power over media destinies in the twenty-first century got a lot of traction. An important book to trumpet the idea positively from economic and legal standpoints was Yochai Benkler's The Wealth of Networks. A book jacket blurb by University of Virginia communication professor Siva Vaidhyanathan accurately described it as "a lucid, powerful, and optimistic account of a revolution in the making." Underscore the word optimistic. As Benkler saw it, the technological openness and flexibility of the internet would allow individuals unprecedented opportunities to collaborate outside of traditional business frameworks toward the creation of an astonishing new world:
A series of changes in the technologies, economic organization, and social practices of production in this environment has created new opportunities for how we make and exchange information, knowledge, and culture.... [N]ewly emerging practices have seen remarkable success in areas as diverse as software development and investigative reporting, avant-garde video and multiplayer online games. Together, they hint at the emergence of a new information environment, one in which individuals are free to take a more active role than was possible in the industrial information economy of the twentieth century. This new freedom holds great practical promise: as a dimension of individual freedom; as a platform for better democratic participation; as a medium to foster a more critical and self-reflective culture; and, in an increasingly information-dependent global economy, as a mechanism to achieve improvements in human development everywhere.
Paralleling Benkler's bold claims for the collaborative efficiencies afforded by new information platforms were assertions that the new technologies provided people with previously unheard of levels of power to follow their individual interests. Some pointed to the bad side of that power, others to its positive implications. Cass Sunstein took a negative slant in his book Republic.com and in related writings. "The most striking power provided by emerging technologies is the growing power of consumers to 'filter' what they see," he stated, in an often-cited line. To Sunstein, the ability to customize news sites by topic, to skip unpalatable topics, and to find comfort in like-minded ideological blogs meant that people can live in idea cocoons of their own making, or of their making in collaboration with people who agree with them—what Sunstein called "cyber-polarization."
Henry Jenkins saw these same individual powers quite differently. In Convergence Culture and other works, his focus was on very active contemporary audiences who often push media companies to include them in their activities across multiple platforms, from television to magazines to fan conventions. It was a celebratory view that reveled in people's growing influence on their symbol-making environment. What concerned Jenkins was not ideological polarization but teenagers' awareness of what is appropriate when wielding the liberating technologies of the digital revolution. "The world has suddenly developed a printing press for every person on the planet," he told Singapore's Straits Times in response to consternation in that nation about a young woman who posted nude photos of herself on her website, "but it has not prepared its culture to be responsible or imagine the consequences of suddenly becoming media makers."
Jenkins overreached in his assertion: there surely are places where not everyone has even the most widespread digital medium, the cell phone—places, in fact, where those who have phones cannot afford to charge their batteries frequently. His basic point, though, is quite reasonable. Digital technologies are providing more people than ever with the tools to be media makers and so to reach out to more people than ever. Similarly clear in the new media landscape is the proposition that individuals are captains of their own interpretations and increasingly use them as starting points to create culturally exciting or politically dangerous worlds of understanding for themselves and others.
Yet his contentions, and those of others about digital-powers-to-the-people, beg important questions that the proponents of such views almost never raise: How broad and deep is this power by individuals and volunteer networks of collaborators compared to the large institutional brokers of cultural and political power in society? Is the new individual or group autonomy the central force that will shape the way Americans and others learn about the world and realize opportunities to benefit from it, or will other emerging factors be more important, more decisive?
The basic concerns are certainly not new with the digital age. Since at least the late 1920s, academics have disagreed about the primacy of human agency versus the power of media industries in shaping people's views of the world. Until quite recently, despite an ocean of writing about media over the past century, virtually separate worlds of media scholarship existed with different assumptions about individual autonomy. These scholars argued different worldviews but rarely clashed directly over particular cases that would try the claims of individual autonomy versus institutional power. So, for example, a raft of major quantitative studies beginning in the late 1920s at Ohio State University, Columbia University, and the U.S. military showed that personal background characteristics and social relationships led people to interpret what they heard, saw, or read from the media in their own ways, as well as to choose the content that would provide the gratifications they wanted. Media, they concluded, have far more limited power to change people than many in society thought. Around the same time, a stream of critical sociologists and political economists inflected by Marxist perspectives argued that individual autonomy actually paled in the face of powerful business institutions. Sometimes generating detailed content analyses of media output as evidence, they insisted that the capitalist system, working with government, deeply influenced the broad social and cultural agendas from which audience members had the opportunity to choose their materials.
Similar sets of opposing academic insights converged on qualitative cultural studies. From the 1940s through the 1980s, left-leaning interests in historical and textual aspects of popular culture underscored the importance of understanding the industrial production of culture to lay bare the dynamics of institutional power. Yet by the 1980s disappointment that powerful culture-producing systems wouldn't respond to demands for substantial change coincided with quite a different view: that the actual meaning of a media article, song, sign, or video came not from its institutional creation but in its interpretation by the individual receiver, who could be often seen to create interpretations that resisted authority.
The work by Negroponte, Benkler, and even Sunstein fit neatly into this corpus as it relates to the new digital environment. While their views hold much prominence, several critiques that have emerged present an institutional perspective. One line, drawing from critical political economy, points to the huge corporations that control the content people are supposedly using autonomously. A second stream of writings on the digital world dives more directly into the human-agency fray. They see the liberating experiences that Jenkins and others have mentioned as actually part of strategies for exploitation. It is, for example, quite logical to explore Facebook and other sites that rely on content generated by the sites' users as examples of free labor in the interest of corporate profits.
A few scholarly attempts accommodate both the models of individual power that Negroponte, Benkler, and Sunstein profess and the corporate-power approaches that others have advanced. Dutch theorist José van Dijck argues for seeing audience members as both independent and exploited, "as facilitator of civic engagement and participation, ... as a producer, consumer, and data provider, as well as [in a] volatile position in the labour market." Van Dijck's formulation certainly points to an important mixture of elements of individual autonomy amid corporate control. It falls short, though, of suggesting ways to map the relative importance of each. That's where understanding the contemporary media-buying business becomes critical.
The following pages show that the centrality of corporate power is a direct reality at the very heart of the digital age. In previous writings I have followed the rise of audience targeting and database marketing and suggested that marketers and ad agencies have pivotal roles in shaping a new media world. This book goes further to show how a specific system of organizations within marketing is most responsible for the transformation that is taking place. The following chapters look under the hood of what advertising executives often call the media-buying ecosystem to reveal the forces driving the evaluations of audiences. These processes are in turn leading marketers and media firms to reconfigure the entire media structure and its relationship to the ways audiences are profiled, valued, and surrounded by various forms of content. It is through this analysis that we can best understand the pressures on and strategies of search sites such as Google; portals like Yahoo!; social-media sites such as Facebook; myriad digital "publishers," from Huffington Post to CBS.com; smart phones such as the Android, iPhone, and BlackBerry; traditional radio stations; magazines; and supermarket coupons—as well as the convergence of these, and far more.
Ironically, while Henry Jenkins believes that the new system is rooted in an empowering of the audience and a respect for it, this project unpacks a fundamental lack of audience respect on the part of the media-buying system even as its practitioners use rhetorics of consumer power to hide it. None of this denies the spaces for independence of individual and group action that Negroponte, Benkler, Jenkins, Sunstein, and others identify in the new environment. It becomes clear, though, that these spaces are constrained and channeled by industry logics shaped by new media-buying mindsets that speak directly to whether, when, and how items are presented to particular audiences for attention. Increasingly, it is the media-buying system that is the prime mover in the emerging digital world.
Media buying is probably not the first thing you think of when someone mentions the advertising business. The commercial messages that surround us—the industry's most obvious products—make up its public face. They can also generate considerable controversy. Particular ads have, for example, been charged with propelling children to eat too much, encouraging women to be too thin, or urging people to demand their doctors to prescribe expensive drugs. Ads are also sometimes viewed as entertainment in and of themselves—a phenomenon that is especially striking in the yearly fixation on commercials that show up during the Super Bowl. The unending love-hate relationship with commercial appeals also shows up in a broad array of academic writings by communication researchers, anthropologists, cultural-studies analysts, and social historians on ways to understand how advertising messages "work" in society.
Advertising-industry leaders try to use popular and catchy commercial images and expressions to embody their business as a whole and generate goodwill. The Advertising Walk of Fame, on New York's traditional ad capital, Madison Avenue, has become a high-profile way to define the industry for the public. In 2009, the AOL running man and the Budweiser Clydesdales entered the Walk in the category of brand characters. They beat twenty-four other nominees, including Smokey Bear and the Vlasic stork. In the slogan category, the winners were "Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there," for State Farm insurance, and "Virginia is for lovers," for Virginia tourism. They topped two dozen other nominees, including "Just do it," for Nike.
These collective memories may well be useful for the industry, and scholarly analyses of advertisements may well be illuminating for what they say to and about their intended audiences. Yet lavishing attention on what trade parlance calls the "creative" side of the business leaves out essential aspects of advertising's social role. At base, advertising involves payment for attempts to persuade people to purchase or otherwise support a product or service. The definition suggests two sets of activities in addition to the creation of a persuasive message. One, traditionally called media planning and buying, revolves around the provision of funds to pay for placement of the notice. The other, part of marketing research, entails evaluating whether and how the message worked. Both areas of ad work have evolved substantially over the past century or so; so has the creative side. The advertising playbook says that practitioners from "creative," research, and planning/buying should work together for maximum impact of a campaign, and often they do. Nevertheless, the center of gravity in the industry has moved so that the media-buying and planning function has taken outsized importance. The forthcoming chapters describe such fundamental shifts around media buying and the research to define its success (what are often called metrics) that they are causing advertising-industry and media-industry executives to fundamentally rethink the very nature of their businesses, their relationships with advertisers, their dealings with media firms, and their approaches to audiences.
The changes are particularly momentous with the large consumer-oriented marketers, companies such as Procter and Gamble, Kraft, General Motors, and Nestlé, that have developed cozy relationships with television, magazines, radio, billboard companies, and newspapers over the past century. The trade magazine Advertising Age estimates that in 2009 the top one hundred consumer advertisers in the United States spent around $90.7 billion on advertising. Those advertising expenditures are the fuel not only for commercial messages about their products but also for great portions of entertainment, news, and information in the United States and around the world. It follows that decisions by them and their ad agencies to shift even a small portion of their buys to the digital media—around 15 percent and growing quickly in 2010—validated the new data-gathering models for media buying and pushed them ahead. At the same time, the reallocation of money to the Web, video games, and mobile handsets reinforced the process of devaluing traditional ad vehicles, particularly print newspapers and magazines.
Excerpted from The Daily You by Joseph Turow Copyright © 2011 by Joseph Turow. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted December 20, 2012
You can read this book two ways, depending on your perspective: If you are a marketer or businessperson selling goods or services, you can marvel at the skill and genuine cleverness with which media buyers and associated digerati companies have mined Internet connections to get beneath the skin of today’s consumers. As a result, they are getting ever closer to the marketers’ Holy Grail – the ability to target advertising to the right individuals and avoid waste. After all, people like receiving relevant ads, special offers and discounts, don’t they? On the other hand – and this is the perspective of author Joseph Turow, professor of communications at the Annenberg School at the University of Pennsylvania – this style of marketing leads to discrimination: Marketers’ favored consumers get better offers. Most people have little understanding of the law and find corporate privacy policies opaque. Turow explains (perhaps sometimes with too great a density of detail and jargon) that the public has had no choice in these developments. What if, he asks sagely, atomized advertising to individuals leads to a greater fragmentation of society and – as a side effect – undermines the economics of mainstream media, which are vehicles for bringing society together? getAbstract recommends his meaty exposition of one of the great dilemmas facing the information society.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 5, 2012
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