The Rise of Media Quants

College prof Joseph Turow on how data-driven advertising is shaping the world

The promise of the Internet was a digital world in which the consumer was king. But in The Daily You, Joseph Turow, a professor of communications at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School, argues that today’s hypercustomized media landscape is actually minimizing consumers’ power. He talked to Adweek about the rise of the media buyer and the new data-driven advertising machine.

Adweek: What’s the back story on the book’s title?

Turow: Nicholas Negroponte [co-founder of the MIT Media Lab] published a book in the mid-’90s called Being Digital. One of the ideas behind the book was that in the future people would be able to create their own realities, which he and others called “The Daily Me.” What I’m trying to suggest is that it’s not as simple as saying the consumer has the power. The development of a big data industry around media planning and buying is such that so much of what we get will be created for us, and [we] may not even know it.

How has media buying changed over the past few years?

The planning and buying part of advertising used to be a backwater. Now, it has become the realm of highly sophisticated mathematicians and probability theorists and statisticians. Many of the same people who worked on Wall Street are coming to work in advertising. To really understand what’s happening in the media world now, you have to understand media buying and planning.

You talk about “social discrimination.” Explain.

It’s the idea that marketers and others can begin to show people ads and discounts, or different kinds of news and entertainment, based upon the categories that they’ve placed those people in. But [those people] often have no clue about it and have never given permission—and might not even agree with them.

But isn’t the upside that people get content and ads that they might actually care about?

Some people may benefit from that discrimination; others may lose. You may get discounts and opportunities that will position your understanding of the world in a particular set of ways. We’ve always had that to some extent, but I’m suggesting that it will happen increasingly. It’s best to think of a world where people have larger and larger options open to them rather than a world in which their options are narrowed—and narrowed not because of what they want, but because of what a variety of organizations have converged on thinking about [who] they are and what they like.

What are the implications for politics?

Political marketers will begin to make inferences about people and political beliefs based upon their activities in the larger society—the kinds of cars you use, the kinds of vacations you take. That kind of marking of people [can] be problematic. Down the line, one can see candidates spinning different ideological positions based on what they think you want to hear about them.

So, are you opposed to behavioral targeting?

I’m not. I think the train has left the station with that. What I’m concerned with and I think what marketers ought to be concerned with is a situation where people have no level of participation in the information about them that is being distributed. I think Do Not Track [proposals] is a good thing. I think some kinds of situations that are opt-in are important. I think public debate has to start.