When GMail first hit the scene and I got my coveted invitation to the beta program, part of the agreement was that Google could suck down all the text – incoming and outgoing – and analyze it for more effective target marketing. There would be ads in the sidebar and across the top, and these would be tailored for users based on keywords in the emails. These were machines reading the emails – not individuals, businesses, or governments. Just machines, talking to each other.
Okay, fine. The reality is, when you send an email, it can be read by machines. That’s how email works. It can be read by network administrators, too. And frankly, although there are workplace rules and laws against it, they could, in theory, print one, take it home, and laugh over it with their friends.
What generally keeps email private is the sheer volume of it. Encryption systems are kind of a pain, so we only use those for the most sensitive emails – the day to day “Hi, how are you? Fine, thanks, how are you?” crap doesn’t get encrypted.
Being curious sorts, my friend Martha and I immediately began planning a much-needed vacation from work. We used GMail to discuss our fantasy plans, which went something like this:
“I need a vacation. Somewhere warm. With a beach. With those little frou-frou drinks sporting colorful paper umbrellas.”
“Served by good looking cabana boys!”
“Absolutely. I think I want to learn to surf, while we’re there. I don’t know how to surf, though. I’d probably need lessons.”
“And a surfboard. Maybe a cute bathing suit.”
We started laughing as GMail picked up on all this and began planning our vacation for us with targeted advertising. First, there was an ad for the Del Coronado resort in San Diego. Then, an ad for SurfHer, a surfing school run by a woman for women. Unfortunately, ladies, we missed our opportunity – the school is now closed, and more’s the pity. There was an ad for a surf shop nearby, with a great selection of surfboards, bathing suits, wetsuits and anything else we might need or want for our adventure. We were set.
“Now all we need are good deals on flights.”
And GMail obliged with a nice selection of flights and airline ads, making it harder and harder to focus on work. We were tempted to make our fantasy vacation a reality. We talked about it as if it were really happening, and to this day I remember its recommendations.
When we know how the thing works – when we don’t feel “targeted” but rather, “catered to,” targeted advertising can be a nice thing. I don’t have to see a plethora of ads for car parts and plumbing hardware, unless I have an urgent problem that could be solved easily with a little DIY advice and a quick trip to Lowe’s. I don’t have to slog through the cesspool of sex toys and Viagra ads, ads for things that promise to enlarge body parts I don’t possess – I can see ads tailored to the things I’m interested in. But the fact that marketers know, sometimes with uncanny precision, exactly what it is I’m interested in can seem a little creepy, stalker-ish, and “Big Brother”-ish. I don’t like dwelling on just how much corporations might know about me – even if they claim that the data is anonymous. It doesn’t feel anonymous, and their “experiments” in “targeting” me have eroded my trust in them all.
I sometimes imagine a roomful of marketing folks (not always the most sensitive and self-aware people in the world) gathered around a peephole, watching my every move through life. When it’s convenient and they toss me things like Owl-shaped, Calorie-free, Purple Pistachio Truffles, I think, “Wow, you get me. No one’s ever paid such close attention to my wants and needs. I think I love you…” But too much of a good thing and I start to see them as “stalking” me – I begin to wonder if the truffles are laced with cyanide-soaked peach pits, rather than pistachios. I look closer at the labels and find them lacking in quality and safety controls, and I feel used and unsafe.
I’m tempted to take out a restraining order.
Or, in my subversive moments, a…retraining order. I remember that conversation, in GMail, about vacations and cabana boys and drinks with paper umbrellas. I think how easy it is to manipulate the machine, to tweak the noses of “thought leaders” and “marketing professionals,” and I am tempted, once again, but this time with darker thoughts and slightly malicious intentions.
It’s a dance, isn’t it? We want convenience. We want people – and the machine – to understand us. But in understanding us, we want them to respect our boundaries and stop trying to insinuate themselves so intimately in every aspect of our daily lives. I think that’s where marketing tends to fall short – particularly among eager amateurs who don’t understand what happens when the tide turns and the targeted become the targeters, and begin to f*** with the system.