Embracing Our Evil Overlords

We often have a tendency to rhapsodize the past while lamenting how we’ve somehow lost something essential to humanity in the present.

For example, I talked to a friend of mine seven years younger than me. He eulogized on how the Internet had killed the personal relationship, and how it’s so much harder to actually maintain any “real” relationships with anyone nowadays because of the Internet.

I laughed.

I remember the days of America Online, when you would receive tens upon tens of CDs in the mail to try this new “World Wide Web” thing. I remember the days when my mother would carefully schedule phone calls home in order to get the best rates in long distance. I remember upgrading our rotary phone to a touch tone phone, when we upgraded our corded phone to a cordless and the freedom it provided during a phone call, when we got our first answering machine and how dependent we grew upon it, how if your sister was talking to her friend on the phone you had no choice but to wait or yell at her to get off so that you could talk to your friend on the phone. I remember the past, calling my friend’s home phone and letting it ring six times before giving up and deciding they weren’t home to answer it.

I remember when the best way to keep in contact with my friend in Sandy, Utah was to write hand written letters. We communicated perhaps once a month at best. Snail mail used to be the standard procedure for communicating anyone with whom you didn’t want to pay long distance to talk to on the phone. When we got America Online for the first time, I remember how maybe a total of twenty websites existed commercially. The first time I logged into a chat room (remember those), I marveled how easily it became to connect with people who had the same interests you did.

I could go on.

No, maintaining relationships is so much easier with the advent of the Internet. I can follow friends who I otherwise would have no real feasible physical contact with, peering into the minutiae of their life through Twitter, talking with them on Google Chat, and commenting on their photos with Facebook. My friend Quinton and I remained great friends despite never living in the same state for seven years straight. My friend David and I have started a collaborative project together collecting Mormon folklore despite the fact that we live over a thousand miles away. And my missionary brother and I can send emails instantaneously, even though from time to time, my brother doesn’t even live in the same day as me.

In other words, life is awesome.

Which is why I laugh when people complain about targeted ads.

Do people not remember how advertisements used to work? How ad agencies would have to dilute their ads to the lowest common denominator in order to placate as many demographics as possible? Remember how we used to only get coupons if we checked in the mail, how 99% of them didn’t apply to you (and still don’t today)? Remember how the only way you could figure out what was on sale at your favorite store was to either physically check the brick-and-mortar storefront or to sign up for a newsletter  that they mailed to you?

Today, I get Borders coupons straight to my email inbox. I print out the ones I want and bring them in. Best Buy lets me know what discounts are available this week without me ever leaving the house. I sign up for newsletters from various small companies that would normally never be able to broadcast their services if we still needed to push information through some form of physical medium. For example, every month, a small organic farm in Carnation, Washington lets me know scheduled events. Every week, the Farmers Market Alliance lets me know what’s currently in harvest. My wife gets JoAnn and Michaels coupons, comparing which are better. Instead of just sending the mainstream music I abhor, Amazon carefully analyzes what I download for free and lets me know which indie bands released what this week. Usually, it’s pretty spot on. Meanwhile, my wife recently bought knitting needles through Amazon – she now gets notices that such and such knitting product is on sale.

In fact, it’s gotten to the point where traditional marketing irritates me. When Facebook ads are completely off the mark (and they usually are), I roll my eyes and huff a little. Whenever we have to sit through another asinine car commercial while watching Hulu, my wife and I groan and move on to something else. But whenever an ad is specifically targeted at us, our eyebrows raise, we look at each other, discuss the pros and cons of purchasing the product, and then make a decision. If we decided it’s useful (and we try to exercise caution in our consumer habits), then buy it and usually, we get some value out of it. If we decide it’s not useful, we ignore it and move on.

I find the whole opposition to more and more precise marketing research through the collection of demographic information somewhat hilarious. We spend our entire lives carefully crafting a self-image (a brand, if you will). We willfully choose what we wear and what we eat and what we read and what we buy and what we use and what sports we play and what music we listen to in order to send a message about ourselves. Even those who “don’t care” often will carefully craft their nonchalant attitude towards consumerism. This we do to communicate Who We Are to our friends, family, and even strangers. But when big bad marketers decide to help narrow down our product searches, instead of viewing it as a symbiotic relationship, we cry foul. Strange.

Does it really matter whether or not someone in a corporate office knows that you like ABBA and Ikea’s Swedish meatballs?

And how come nobody seems to care that the previous Republican president illegally wiretapped American citizens?

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Embracing Our Evil Overlords

  1. dteeps

    Ted, and I say this as lovingly as I can, You are a NERD. But, so am I. I, too, am fascinated by ads and what ads are targeted at me and which fail miserably. Maybe we’re just a little too enlightened for our own good? I look at ads and take them apart, dissecting the rhetorical argument and judging them not based on what they’re trying to sell, but on how they are selling it.
    Mostly I just laugh and move on. But, I don’t get suckered into buying a lot of things I don’t need!

    • Ted

      Very true. In his book Simple Prosperity, David Wann talks about how advertising these days is all about sowing discontentment with your life. If you’re content with your life, you don’t really need to buy anything.

      Which doesn’t mean that if you buy anything you’re discontent, but finding simple contentment with your life definitely immunizes you against impulsive buying. You only buy that which you absolutely need or that which you actually really want.

      • The point of marketing is to convince you that you are not content. You of all people understand the power of rhetoric. Seeing a fleeting image of a thin, happy woman with a Nikon D3 in her hands may make me roll my eyes and move on because I’m not foolish enough to believe buying a Nikon D3 will solve all my problems. But on a subconscious level, I have associated happiness with not only that Nikon, but with attractiveness as well.

        Targeted ads do more then present you with options to save money on stuff you would have normally bought. They make you buy things you wouldn’t have before (regardless of how “in control” you think you are…sometimes a deal is “too good” to pass up right?). But worse, they add to the repository of images that subconsciously tell you that you are not happy.

  2. Pingback: Know Your Enthymeme | The Religiously Sanctioned Co-Habitation Chronicles

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