The Super Bowl is as much about advertising, in some respects more, than the actual game. Advertisers are paying as much as $3 million a commercial spot, which is perplexing in this era of targeted advertising on the web. Super Bowl ads hit a mass of people, more than 100 million expected for today’s Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers face off, but advertisers don’t know who you are. Or do they? It’s a question I’ve been asking, following several unusual events occurring over the past 10 days or so. I’m talking about your privacy and how much less of it you have this Super Bowl Sunday than the last one and how much more advertisers will know about you by next year’s playoff.
I’ve been thinking lots more about advertising and privacy this week because of Google allegations that Microsoft copied search results and because of a personal experience with targeted advertising. I’ll start with the latter. Early last week, I saw banner ads on several tech sites for two different sites where I occasionally buy WordPress themes and cell phones. A few days before seeing the splash banners, I visited both sites — the one looking for new WordPress themes and the other to buy a case for my Google-branded, Samsung-manufactured Nexus S smartphone.
Internet Profiling is for Real
At first, I didn’t connect the visitations with the advertising. Instead, I was rather excited to see these two small businesses advertising on sites I visited. But then I got to wondering how coincidental the banner ads might be. So I went on another computer, using a different browser (Safari instead of Chrome) that had never been to the small business sites, and visited the tech sites where the banners appeared. The banner ads consistently appeared on my laptop but not the other. My conclusion: Some ad network is mining my browser’s cookies and displaying targeted ads.
This isn’t exactly some startling revelation. This kind of activity is well documented. But I got to thinking about it in several other contexts, starting with the Google-Microsoft scuffle over copying search results. Microsoft denies the charge but does admit to using the “click stream optionally provided by consumers in an anonymous fashion as one of 1,000 signals” to improve search relevancy. Google created “100 synthetic queries” — fakes — one being “hiybbprqag, and some showed up in Bing searches. Giving Microsoft the benefit of the doubt for the moment and assuming that the data really was collected in bulk, the effectiveness of this mass monitoring is startling. If Microsoft can effectively collect masses of searches and end up copying Google search queries without trying, how much more effective must deliberate data collection be? Even anonymously collected data can be used, or misused if you buy Google’s reasoning.
I also got to thinking about advertising, data collection and privacy in context of News Corp.’s The Daily, a newspaper launched last week for iPad. News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch said that his company spent $30 million in startup costs, and weekly operations are expected to be $500,000, or about $26 million a year. That’s a helluva lot of money to spend on a tablet, with an install base of about 14 million at the end of calendar Q4 2011. But The Daily’s reach is actually much smaller, being only available in the United States. News Corp. charges 99 cents for their tablet-only newspaper, which is free for the first two weeks thanks to Verizon sponsorship. Sure, with little more than 500,000 subscribers The Daily could break even on a weekly basis. But are paying subscribers really News Corp.’s goal? No. It’s more about advertising, which Murdoch and The Daily executive staff put in context of the immersive reading experience; longer time spent in the app appeals to advertisers. Perhaps, but there is something more important to them: Identity, knowing who you are and tying that to a demographic profile.
It’s Who You Are That Matters
The future of advertising is identity, somebody watching your behavior and targeting it with marketing. Amazon already does this today. My wife jokes that Amazon is her best friend, that she gets more e-mail from the retailer than from any person. The e-mails typically are targeted based on recent Amazon searches or purchases. I got one of these today: “Our Most Popular Point & Shoot Digital Cameras.” On Friday, I searched Amazon for the Canon PowerShot S95. Amazon also makes product suggestions on the home page, based on your shopping habits.
Then there are Facebook and Google, for which identity is a valuable commodity. There’s a reason why Facebook keeps pushing privacy boundaries. Marketers want access to your profile. Google claims to collect data anonymously, which may even be true for now, but there’s an identity behind it for anyone searching the web signed into @gmail.com. The data isn’t really anonymous, because Google tracks your search history and even presents it to you by number of visits to different websites. So your identity is tied to something.
The Daily gets your identity from your Apple ID. Surely Apple knows your App Store and iTunes purchases, which is tied to an identity, even if who you are isn’t directly disclosed to third parties — for now. All this demographic data can be used to generate profiles of different users, based on age and purchasing habits. News Corp. can go further, amassing data on what you read, how much of it and how long you stay in different sections of the tablet newspaper. Surely editors would use this data to improve content and to see what works, but advertisers would want it, too. Other publications and non-publication sites do this kind of data mining already. It’s well documented.
“Every Breath You Take…I’ll Be Watching You”
What does any of this have to do with Super Bowl XLV? From one perspective, the national football playoff is an anachronism. It represents the old way of marketing — spending mountains of money to reach a massive anonymous audience. But Super Bowl marketing is changing, too.
If you Google the results during the game, signed in @gmail.com, someone is watching you. If you go to the Super Bowl website, someone is watching you. If you watch any of the Super Bowl commercials on YouTube or other sites, someone is watching you (Heck, Mashable has collected “30 Super Bowl ads you can watch before the big game“). If you go to one of the many Facebook Super Bowl XLV fan pages, someone is watching you. If you use any of the Super Bowl XLV apps for Android or iOS, someone is watching you. I don’t mean to sound paranoid, because I’m not. I long ago accepted that because of the Web that I have no real privacy, and neither do you.
Marketers have pushed social media and viral marketing with a passion ahead of today’s game. At the end of last week, there was viral buzz about Volkswagen’s “The Force” spots (This one has more than 12.5 million views). Motorola took the approach of putting up 15 seconds of a Xoom tablet commercial. What advertisers are doing around those big anonymously-targeted Super Bowl ad spends foreshadows the future. Think about that next year, when you use a Super Bowl app, search for a local sports bar on your smartphone, enter contests to win gear with your favorite team’s logo or log into a Facebook fan page. Now stop reading this post and go watch the game.