When one plus one equals three – welcome to online marketers

The other evening She Who Must Be Obeyed fielded an email from an online bookstore. She looked up and said to me, ‘You and your Neandertals!’

I had to share this pic, taken by She Who Must Be Obeyed. We end up in some interesting places, sometimes.

OK internet – market me something based on what I’m doing here. Go on. I’m some dude in a hard hat. Wanna sell me beer? Actually – and this is not a joke – I was photographed in a coal mine while researching a book in which I mention Neandertals. Really. I’ve got a publisher contract, a grant and everything. It’s being published next year. Would you know it from the photo? I suspect not. But I’d still buy the beer…

Years ago, I did an undergrad degree in anthropology. I’ve kept up with the paleontological side ever since. I’d used her account to buy a study of our closest relatives. Now she was getting offers to buy other books about Krog the Cave Man.

Not her interest, but the store thought it was.

Which begs a question. Everything we do online – everything with our phones, where we go and so forth – is tracked. What profile does that really build?

We can’t control adverts served up randomly (as administrator, I don’t see the ones that turn up on this blog, but I bet you do – I HOPE they’re OK).

Point being, there is a story I heard about some guy who clicked on an offensive pop-up advert to make it go away. Next thing, his social media page – which he’d logged out of – was reporting he’d looked at this site. Made him look dodgy.

So injustices happen – and yet the logic is impeccable. Account holder X bought such-and-such, so they must be interested in such-and-such, therefore we’ll serve them advertisements for more of it. Person Y clicked on pop-up Z, so they must have looked at it and been interested in the content.

Thing is, sometimes 1 + 1 doesn’t make 3. Marketers know what we do, but they don’t know the thinking behind it, or even necessarily whether it’s the same person, even.

This sort of 1 + 1 = 3 thinking is pretty common, historically.  Assumptions are made about how people behave, or about why they behave, based on prevailing frameworks of thought – themselves framed by prevailing ideas and prejudices.

History is also littered with examples of it going wrong. In the medieval period, for instance, if a woman went near a cow and it sickened, there was a fair chance she might be burned as a witch. The logic was impeccable at the time – woman X went near the cow, the cow sickened and died, so she must have hexed it. Whole trials were held to prove the point, all pivoting on the proximity of the woman to the cow.

Mad, by our standards, but logical and obvious then, at least to some. The frightening part being that medieval Europe got there by ordinary, rational steps. Starting with: ‘If you are innocent, you have nothing to fear’.

Just saying…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013 

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10 comments on “When one plus one equals three – welcome to online marketers

  1. kokkieh says:

    Must say I’ve never encountered ads on your site yet. You touch on a very important point here, and ultimately we’re sacrificing our privacy. As you mention, already all our online activity is tracked, from searches, which links we click, what we upload and download. Came across this article last week claiming that Google even scans your, supposedly secure, Gmail account for key words (http://www.businessinsider.com/googles-plan-to-take-over-the-world-2013-5#ixzz2Tn8PAuFW) and Facebook Graph Search being rolled out soon will make it even harder to keep your facebook content private. Few people also know that your Xbox Kinect, Nintendo Move (both containing cameras) and your webcam can be used to spy on you via remote access if you’re online. All this for the sake of selling us stuff.

    Aside from questionable marketing being associated with us due to the faulty logic you mention, our privacy is being invaded as never before and one has to ask who’s watching us and, more important, who’s watching them?

  2. I gather that WordPress serves ads up on occasion – apparently not often. (I could pay to have a totally ad-free site, I suppose.) I knew Google scarfed their gmail content for keywords – I notice ads served up to me based on my emails. The concern for me is what may happen if any of the data collected by devices or services is taken out of context – or worse, removed from the control of the collector by some other agency. History offers lessons about what happens in that case.

    Yes – who watches the watchmen? Unanswerable since Roman times as a philosophical point – and just brilliantly explored for us today in the movie and graphic novel – one of my favourites of all time.

  3. stuartart says:

    I’m innocent! I never touched that cow – I saw my neighbour look at it yesterday though, burn her!

  4. Elisa Nuckle says:

    Yeah I hate marketing. Commercials these days take up a good 15-20% of a single episode on TV (and if they actually don’t it certainly drags on as if they do). It’s ridiculous and doesn’t lend to sales. For me, anyway.

    • Same here – ‘Big Bang Theory’, which is about 20 minutes actual show, includes 10 mins ads, distributed without consideration for how the writers paced the show….or, actually, anything. They’ve got wise to timings that let me boil the kettle. Or even channel hop – the co-ordination isn’t so much astonishing as obviously deliberate. Given the intrusive annoyance of ads (and bum rap given to those who do it) you’d think it wouldn’t pay the advertisers and they’d stop…but noooooo….

      Which, in a nutshell, is why I don’t watch TV. Except Dr Who and Big Bang Theory – seriously! We have a DVD hire service here in NZ – ‘Fatso’ – which is brilliant, cheaper than anything broadcast – and ad free…

      • Elisa Nuckle says:

        Yeah my husband and I record all our shows on DVR and wait for the show to end. Then we watch it, fast forward through all the commercials, and it’s just so nice. This is also why we prefer HBO shows like Game of Thrones or just those channels in general. No commercials during the shows or movies. Meaning they don’t edit them or cut stuff out to try and fit commercials in (which is the DUMBEST thing about TV sometimes, seriously).

  5. Facebook tracks while you type. I’ve written comments and watched the ads along the side change in response. Big Brother is watching and he doesn’t care that you know about it. The information stored for marketing purposes is also sitting and waiting for someone to abuse it. It happens. Empires rise and fall. It happens. I hope I’m not here for it.

    I despise commercials. 95% of my television viewing is done online and when the commercials come on I mute them and switch to a different window and something I’m either reading or working on. “Big Bang Theory” is a must.

    • The Big Bang Theory is a must in our household too, apart from the ads. We can watch it also on a ;”TV On Demand” service, but that gets shredded with commercials too.

      I agree – the problem with collected data is if it’s misused – and I think historically that’s usually been perpetrated by somebody other than the collector.

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