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An Army of Eyeballs: The Rise of the Advertisee

During a blackout at the 2013 Super Bowl, a bright spark on Oreo’s marketing team had a brainstorm. With one tweet, the snappy insta-slogan “You can still dunk in the dark” inspired a tidal wave of shares amidst the snacking. It was the free publicity coup every brand dreams of: within just twenty-four hours, the tweet was retweeted almost 15,000 times, and consumers submitted more than 16,000 personal photos of their favorite cookie.

“#Dunkinthedark” was just one example of a growing trend in social media–colossal participation by fans and customers in advertising campaigns. Intel’s “Museum of Me” campaign has attracted over 18 million clicks of approval. More people watched Old Spice’s YouTube ads in twenty-four hours than those who watched Obama’s first presidential victory speech (total impressions were 1.4 billion in 2010). Website URLs on billboards are being replaced by conversational Twitter hashtags encouraging sharing and discussion. The traditional broadcast model of advertising—one-way, one-to-many, read-only—is increasingly being superseded by a vision of marketing that wants, and expects, consumers to spread the word themselves.

The economic rationale is self-evident: clever social media suggestions are a cheap alternative to what the broadcast world still charges for top television ad spots like the ones that play during the Super Bowl. But beyond that pragmatic shift, there are more sinister implications to an advertising world that sees people not just as targets, but as potential recruits–especially when such recruits are impressionable young people already keen for friendship and recognition.

Take the manufactured rise to fame of British boy group One Direction. Not content to rely on traditional promotional channels, Sony Music and ad agency Archibald Ingall Stretton decided to involve the “Directioners” (or, in civilian speak, “fans”) in the process of manufacturing and micro-managing the band’s success, right down to decisions like “what the boys should wear, or where their next photo shoot should be.” Even before a first single was released, a social media contest called “Bring 1D To Me” generously gave devotees the chance to recruit even more people into their ranks, while awarding the “super fans” who were the most successful an appearance from One Direction in their own country.

Stoking the Facebook flames seemed to work: by 2013, One Direction had 19 million Facebook “likes,” 14.3 million fans following the @OneDirection Twitter account, and around 418 million YouTube views of the video for their single. It seems a lot of adoring teenagers were only too happy to do the boys a good turn by becoming unofficial—and unpaid—brand ambassadors for one of the richest pop producers in the world.

The recruitment of the public in the advertising process isn’t restricted to tweens. Just consider Apple fan society Cult of Mac, staffed by an international team blogging around the clock, and all of the free advertising Apple fans give the brand worldwide by posting, tweeting and sharing on social media. And in a world increasingly shaped by algorithms, we may not even be aware of how our digital footprint is acting in corporate interests. Think of how much word-of-mouth we spread simply by boosting a particular brand to the top of Google’s autocomplete ranks through our searching; or the effect of our comments and reviews on sites like Yelp and Amazon; or how “frictionless sharing” and Facebook’s Open Graph turn our every click and “like” into the raw data the corporate world uses to talk to us.

When an on-demand TV catch-up service recently asked me which one of two advertisements I’d rather (not?) see before I was allowed to watch the show, it struck me that an important role shift was underway. I’d gone from a passive advertising target to an advertisee—someone being asked to participate in my own process of being-advertised-to. As we move from the age of the impersonal broadcast to that of the highly personalized narrowcast, the marketers are increasingly taking their cues from us.

Changes in technology are also bringing a level of intimacy to the process hitherto inconceivable. Marissa Mayer of Yahoo has pondered “contextual discovery”—search engines actively providing us with information before we even ask, based on extensive knowledge of who we are. Google’s Eric Schmidt talks of “autonomous search” where our phones constantly gather data from the cloud they think might appeal to us—so they might recommend a highly-rated restaurant while we’re strolling through a new neighborhood (imagine the rates Google could charge for ad space on that).

Then there are developments in physical infrastructure. With their ability to read our faces and our fingertips, Apple’s M7 motion-sensor chip, Google’s Glass, and Microsoft’s Kinect are about to allow untold opportunities (and revenues) for advertising, providing much richer insights than what’s so far been available from our browsing and searching. As Evgeny Morozov suggests in his book To Save Everything, Click Here, those who learn to deploy this sensory infrastructure may well become tomorrow’s advertising giants—as the distance between advertiser and advertisee shrinks, and we creep ever closer towards a Minority Report-like reality. We could call it Orwellian, but even Orwell never went that far.

This is our role in the emerging economy—as an army of eyeballs, a sea of sponges awaiting commercial messages. As we become dutiful advertisees helping to spread the corporate creed through our clicks, swipes, and likes, it’s past time we asked some important questions. Is it ethical for marketers to enlist impressionable (and perhaps hormonal or lonely) teenagers to spread their word of mouth, when Facebook already inserts sponsored “stories” (branded ads disguised as fun status updates) into the newsfeeds of children as young as thirteen? And if we’re about to become physical content farms for marketing firms, through everything from our eye blinks to our heart rates, don’t we have the right to know who will be buying this data, and what it will be used for? As The Daily You author Joseph Turow has pointed out, media-buying exchanges already hold levels of personal information about us that would impress the likes of the NSA; imagine giving them the power to “read” our bodies too.

It’s easy to paint a dystopian picture of social media collapsing the walls between the commercial and the personal and treating its user base as nothing more than exploitable data. We saw this in the uproar following the recent revelations of Facebook’s “Emotional Contagion” study, which cheerfully turned 600,000 people into unwitting guinea pigs for psychological experimentation. In reality, the blurred lines between advertising and socializing are subject to economic limits too: Facebook recently reduced its “organic reach,” the amount by which major brands would appear in news feeds for free, in what could be seen as an inching back towards traditional paid advertising.

Nonetheless, it’s online that our hearts and minds (and those of our children) will be won–and given what’s at stake, it would be foolish not to call for oversight and regulation of the narrowcast advertising industry, just as our parents did for broadcast advertising. As post-industrial society moved from production to consumption, the consumer movements of the late twentieth century recognized that citizens could start to assert power by withdrawing their purchases in the same way workers withdrew their labor. Now as we move from being merely consumers to being full-time advertisees, an “eyeball boycott”–accomplished using ad-blocking software, avoiding devices with motion sensors, or employing cookie-free search engines–might be the only means of reasserting our autonomy.

It may already be too late for that. The business model of the Web rests on selling advertising–or, when it can get away with it, selling us, as advertisees with cash value. In a world without paywalls, we increasingly pay for what we get with our eyeball time and with our “shares,” rather than with our money. If we go on demanding everything for free, it’s hard to take a moral stance on the creep of marketing into our lives. Advertising, however intimate, often feels like it’s just a part of the pact.

The popular response to campaigns like “#DunkintheDark,” Museum of Me, and Old Spice may well just be another ripple in the bubbly sea of online activity–uploading a photo of a cookie is hardly a declaration of corporate allegiance. But when it’s vulnerable teens being targeted, and when suggestions of celebrity “friendship” and belonging are dangled to attract tweets and shares, we should question who’s really gaining–as Naomi Klein did fifteen years ago in No Logo when she described offline strategies to recruit popular adolescents as unpaid human billboards.

Advertising and marketing are billion-dollar industries whose tentacles already stretch around the planet. I, for one, will not be volunteering to help do their work for them.