You'll be exposed to around 6,000 marketing messages today, according to researchers. You're looking at a few right now. Glance away from your computer and you'll see another one--a label on a bottle, a logo on a t-shirt, a billboard outside the window.
But as pervasive as it is now, marketers are working hard behind the scenes to make sure it's much, much worse in the future. Doing things like ...
5Tracking Every Site You Browse and Every Show You Watch
Market research used to be pretty simple. You'd just put the new hamburger in front of a group of people and had them fill out a survey asking if they liked it, didn't like it and what degree of diarrhea it gave them. The problem of course was nobody told the truth on those things. For instance, they'll fill out surveys saying they want healthier food on the menu, then will continue to buy the Baconator.
So how's a poor market researcher supposed to get a straight answer out of you? Easy: Just collect the data of your personal habits without you ever knowing. It's kind of like the dude who sneaks around outside your wife's window at night, only they're peering in through your computer or TV screen instead, and hopefully there's less masturbating.
What They're Doing:
So for instance, your TiVo grants you the miracle of watch-on-demand television and skippable ads, but also tracks what you watch, right down to which scenes you rewound and replayed over and over.
But of course the web is light years ahead of TV in tracking your surfing habits. Google is already working on customizing its search results based on your personal browsing history, which requires only that it maintains a comprehensive database of every single thing you've ever tried to find on the web.
No big deal, right? After all, it's not like it would be embarrassing for you if all this information ever got out. You know, like when AOL made that information public on millions of its customers.
Speaking of AOL, they own a company called Tacoda which specializes in "behavioral targeting." Tacoda's technology is used on around 4,000 websites (which reach around 70 percent of the total internet audience). Every letter typed, every click or move of the mouse on the websites they're associated with is tracked, and they're hardly the only player in this game.
Oh, and how about BuzzMetrics? blogs, Facebook pages, message boards, chatrooms, Usenet groups--anywhere the internet denizens can post their leet-speak-filled opinions--are being monitored. The conversation is then fed into programs that calculate the current buzz or trends. Yes, believe it or not, that 20-page debate between two 13-year-olds about whether Batman could beat up Iron Man will help dictate what next year's marketing campaign will look like.
If You Think It's Bad Now ...
Pretty soon, that technique for tracking your habits will become just as common in the real world.
Those awesome GPS boxes for your car that prompt you with turn-by-turn directions? They also keep track of where you're going (maybe you heard the government wants to use the data to tax you, according to your driving habits).
They're developing refrigerators with the super-handy feature that it tracks what you have inside, reminds you when you're out, and lets you order more without leaving the house. Oh, also, it lets retailers track every single thing you buy, all via RFID chips embedded in the product packaging.
Hell, they're even coming out with a wide range of "smart clothes" with computer functions built in that can track all of your bodily functions. Soon vital data on testicular bunching, shifting and chafing can constantly be beamed straight from your boxers to a team of guys looking at a diagram of your nuts.
The tricky thing about advertising is that no one ad appeals to everybody. Car companies run those ads every Christmas where it shows a dude buying his wife a new car as a gift, knowing that only a small sliver of the people who'll see it have the cash to give a $40,000 present, and that the rest couldn't even afford one of those huge red bows.
What They're Doing:
Companies like Visible World are out to solve that problem, looking to make personalized ads. These spots can be broken into interchangeable segments that can be recombined by your cable company based on data they've collected. It gives them countless variations on the same commercial, to carefully target them based on what they know about you.
So the high-income family may get an ad showing a man buying his wife a new diamond necklace, while the poor family next door will get the same ad except, but maybe with an added bit where the guy sells a kidney so he can afford it first.
If You Think It's Bad Now ...
Remember what we said about the refrigerator that keeps track of what brands you buy? Think how much advertisers will pay for that data. They can display the ads right on your fridge.
Or, even better, maybe your cell phone rings, you answer it and it's Starbucks offering you $1 off on a white chocolate, pumpkin and whiskey Frappuccino. Why that's what you always order, and you just passed a Starbucks a second ago. Thank the GPS in your phone, and Starbucks tracking your buying habits.
Of course, we're talking about a distant, hypothetical future here. And by that we mean they intend to have that exact program up and running in a year or two.
What could be creepier than that? Well Google realizes all that data they're collecting is limited to web-surfing habits. Why stop there? Luckily they've got a prototype system that will listen to the conversation going on around your computer and add it to their database.
Really, what could go wrong?