From web cookies to mobile thumbprints, you are the medium and the message is that you are being targeted.
The Daily You: How the New Advertising Industry is Defining Your Identity and Your WorthPublisher: Yale University Press
Length: 256 pages
Author: Joseph Turow
Publication date: 2012-01
Trying to capture trends within the nebulous field of technology is like trying to pin sand on paper. By the time you’ve researched and written about a nascent observation, it’s morphed and splintered into a hundred fragments. And while advertising has a longer shelf life than technology, it still balances precariously on the edge of datedness.
The two fields have been on a collision course for a few decades now, as sponsors, firms, and businesses wrap their heads around how to harness the power of web advertising or, more appropriately, and how to maximize their profits in the digital age. Joseph Turow attacks this subject as an explorer on a quest for knowledge in The Daily You. It’s a daunting task to delve so deeply into the shadowy realms of data mining companies and giant publicity firms. Sometimes the results of his research pay dividends. Other times, they are weighed down by a forest of contextual ideas and thick prose.
Let’s begin with content—there is plenty. At a slim 200 pages (an additional 50 pages are citations and bibliography), The Daily You, packs a massive amount of information into a small space. Turow’s ability to rattle off hefty paragraphs full of research, numbers, and firsthand accounts explicitly places him in the top tier of experts in the field. Turow is comfortable discussing matters of technology and advertising equally, and is able to structure his thesis in a linear, point-by-point investigation/argument.
In doing so, he assumes you are vested in the topic from the beginning and, as such, thankfully dispenses with all of the tired clichés about the advertising industry and the well-worn problems that face the industry now that our media is primarily digital. Turow’s best arguments come when he lays out his case with real numbers that speak to the decline of advertising revenue in print media (e.g., magazines declined from$20.3 billion in 2006 to $15.6 billion in 2009, while newspapers declined from $46.6 billion in 2006 to $24.8 billion in 2009), instead of the usual broad proclamations with no substance (e.g., “print media is dying”).
The most revelatory passages in The Daily You come when Turow unveils and dissects the big machines behind some of the world’s largest data and publicity firms. Names like Publicis, eXelate, and BlueKai, all of which are discussed at length, are suspiciously lacking from the public discourse on privacy and Internet regulation in favor of brand-heavy social media sites. And Turow’s description of other companies frighteningly exact methods of targeting online ads directly to your customized tastes may not seem like new information, until you realize how much of a commodity you are and how much money is being spent to entice you. Likewise, you are either a “target” or “waste”—neither term reassuring as a social concept. Agency’s methods of tracking you over “the long click” (from ad to purchase) are powerful and multi-faceted; from web cookies to mobile thumbprints, you are the medium and the message is that you are being targeted.
However, for all the research and core concepts Turow lays bare, it’s a maddeningly grueling slog to get from page to page. Turow has sacrificed readability for research and subject relevancy for authorial prowess. He tackles his subjects with the type of lengthy academic prose that’s usually reserved for critical analysis of postmodernism or deconstruction of philosophical conceits. Occasionally, his subject demands it, such as Chapter 5, “Their Masters’ Voices”, wehrein pits the marketing and content industries against one another. But Turow’s text is at its most powerful when it’s set out as a simple series of action and effect:
"To increase the Foursquare population… the company encourages members to ‘add friends.’ Of course, by giving Foursquare access to your Facebook profile, you’re giving it still more data about you. You’ve also added a new stream of data for the Facebook and/or Twitter computers to ponder. Moreover, the encouragement to check in at participating locations does not remind you that this and other Foursquare actions can be viewed by subscribers to those services—plus, in the case of Twitter they may be discoverable by search engines. That bit of information shows up only in one of Foursquare’s privacy policies." (151)
But should I really take Turow to task for tackling his subject with the type of gravity usually reserved for theorists? It’s a question I have struggled with, to be honest. On the one hand, the information within The Daily You is powerful, affective, and urgent. But on the other hand, what good is urgency if it’s not designed to reach the broadest possible audience? The Daily You is written as time-consuming, explicative reading, rather than quick, surface-level skimming. Therefore, interested readers likely won’t make it past the first chapter or two without reconsidering their investment in the subjects at hand.
Turow’s core audience (I hope) would look something like me: educated in both advertising and technology, with a vested interest in the ramifications of both fields. Even so, it was difficult to justify the effort spent to get to a kernel of applicable situations in a daily web user’s life, such as the above Foursquare example.
Most of The Daily You, while prescient, isn’t enough to alter the behavior of the legions of techno geeks, and it especially won’t alter the behavior of the casual web/mobile user. No one is going to stop using Amazon, Google, Facebook, Twitter, or any other web conglomerate within the next five to ten years. And Turow isn’t advocating that we should. Rather, his recommendations are only laid out in the final three pages of the book and are very short on specifics. But we have a long way to go before we reach the tipping point in online protection and, while I would like to say Turow is waging a good fight for consumer protection, he squandered an opportunity with The Daily You by appealing to the smallest audience possible.