Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Advertising is all around us, with the help of Big Brother’s data

By Maral Margossian

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(Jessica Tezak/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

(Jessica Tezak/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

George Orwell eternalized the slogan “Big Brother is watching you” in his novel “1984” and surfaced a worldwide intrigue with futuristic dystopian societies. From Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” to Lois Lowry’s “The Giver,” and more recently, Veronica Roth’s “Divergent” series, our disturbing fascination with Big Brother has grown. But as we keep our eye on Big Brother, we have let Big Brother’s brother creep up on us: utilizing Big Data.

Big data is massive, complex, volumes of information collected from various sources that require significant computing power to analyze. This is a vague and basic description of big data, but concrete definitions are debated even among professionals.

Big data can be harnessed for countless purposes – not necessarily all evil – but when this enigma takes shape of personalized advertisements, Big Brother’s watchful gaze becomes more than a disturbing fascination.

In the quest for individualized personal data, some companies are willing to get up close and personal.

For example, two years ago, Facebook conducted a weeklong experiment to see if they could alter its users’ moods based on content on their News Feed. About 700,000 uninformed users were involved in the experiment; some were shown happy content while others, sadder content. The experiment revealed that by the end of the week, those shown happier material were more likely to post happy content, while those shown sadder material posted more negative content.

This experiment poses ethical questions in terms of not only privacy, but also concerning the manipulation of users’ News Feeds.

In another equally disturbing research, a study conducted by the marketing agency Pattison Horswell Durden (PHD) analyzed the days of the week and times of the day when women feel more or less attractive. The study found that women feel least attractive on Monday mornings and feel best about themselves on Thursdays. The researchers point out that these two days offer prime opportunities to target beauty related products to women. Apparently, exploiting the insecurities and emotional states of women is all right as long as it generates money.

We’ve all experienced the time when we were searching for a particular item to buy on the Internet and a few days later see an ad for that item pop up on an unrelated website. For instance, I once looked up airline tickets, then a few hours later looked them up again and the price climbed outrageously. Coincidence? I think not. Those ads usually occur from your computer’s cookies, small tracking files used to safe user information by websites, which can be disabled. However, Google can use content from your email and YouTube to more personalize advertisements on websites your visit.

The primary challenge for advertisers is actually reaching the consumer. Being bombarded with some sort of ad at every turn results in varying degrees of desensitizing. It becomes easier to ignore logos of different brands and companies and move on with your day. In the Forbes article, “Here’s The Future Of Advertising According To Google,” Robert Hof writes, “. . .You should be able to target not devices but people.”

Coca-Cola implemented this strategy of targeting people with their “share a coke campaign.” A Mediapost article describing the campaign states, “The Share A Coke campaign features Coke bottles on which the brand logo has been replaced by the most popular first names of American teens and Millennials, or other friendly identifiers, like ‘bestie,’ ‘star’ and ‘BFF.’”

The company targeted Millennials with familiar names and slang specific to the generation in order to appear less like a company and more like a familiar friend.

Not only are our browsing history, emotions and locations exploited for advertising, our sensory experiences are up for grabs.

According to a New York Times article, “anywhere the eye can see, it’s likely to see an ad.” Some, “Got Milk?” billboards in San Francisco emitted a chocolate-chip cookie aroma at bus stops. However, after people complained about the scent, the company was asked to shut it off. So much for nostalgic memories of grandma baking cookies –those poor folks now associate that smell with busy, noisy bus stops.

The article also states that the average person is exposed to over 5,000 advertisements each day. That amounts to about three advertisements per minute if the person doesn’t sleep. There’s not much we can do about this flood of advertisement other than be conscious of it. It becomes easy to fall into a cycle of consumption, but before Big Data reduces us into an algorithm, we can at least make it harder for them.

Maral Margossian is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at [email protected]

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