Five Things I Learned When I Was Naked

Okay, I lied.

I don’t think I’ve ever learned anything while I was naked.

At least nothing I could put in a column.

Instead, this is a piece about how click-bait headlines like the one above are symptomatic of a world in which:

  • we have no privacy online, and we don’t seem to care;
  • humans are unwittingly turned into mindless brand ambassadors for various products;
  • companies cravenly launch dubious initiatives to which they have no real connection; and
  • even some of the most respected brands in news and publishing, including The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times, are prostituting themselves in order to survive.

I learned all this in a new and fascinating, if deeply depressing, book called Black Ops Advertising by Queens College media expert Mara Einstein.

Everybody’s heard of cookies, those mysterious droplets of zeroes and ones left behind on your browser when you visit a website.

Did you know that cookies actually auction off your personal data to the highest bidder so that companies can sell you stuff based on what they can tell about you online?

And that if you express an interest in a topic via search, ads for that topic will follow you from website to website as you continue to search the Web?

Did you know that the ostensibly free dating site OKCupid can share with advertisers and marketers the often deeply personal revelations you provide when completing your profile?

Or that when you enter data into a fitness app, you are now subject to receiving targeted advertising messages based on your health?

Or that a leading pet food company wants you to feel good about its pet foods even while pets across the globe were allegedly getting sick from them?

Or that Coca-Cola wants you to believe it’s concerned about the world’s obesity problem, even while peddling to kids sugar-laden soft drinks?

Google knows, based on your search preferences, if you are pregnant, depressed, questioning your gender preference, or trying to recover from opioid addiction.

And all that deeply personal information is easily shared and passed along to relevant marketers.

We think we are operating in the dark when we search or surf.

In reality, we might as well be shouting our preferences to the heavens while standing in the middle of Times Square.

All of this is disturbing, of course, but I’ll tell you the saddest thing I learned is this:

Most millennials, Einstein writes, do not associate themselves with religion, traditional forms of community, or pretty much anything else in society.

Instead, they primarily identify themselves with brands.

That’s right, with brands.

For much of the time millennials spend online, they’re getting messages -- some overt, some covert about brands -- and they are allowing themselves to be turned into messengers or advocates for those brands.

It’s no longer about God or the Community Chest.

Today, you are primarily what you drink, eat, wear, drive, or surf.

For advertisers, this is fabulous.

Back in the day, you had to spend tens of millions of dollars on TV ads to influence people.

Now, you can spend $35,000 creating a few videos, and if you’re lucky, or smart, or both, millions of young people will carry your message gratis to friends and strangers.

You can make a case for this—you are empowering the consumer, and so on.

But there’s something pathetic about the idea that for a huge segment of society, their primary allegiance runs not to polis or faith, but instead to the stuff they consume – Mountain Dew, Bud Light, Purina Dog Chow.

I buy, therefore I am.

It’s not just millennials who are influenced by the pervasiveness of online marketing.

Even we older folks who use the Internet primarily to get our news are also influenced in ways we cannot imagine.

Did you know that articles you read in The Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Economist, to name just a few respected media brands, are created not in newsrooms but in “media labs” where they are bought and paid for by advertisers?

The Atlantic did a huge, paid-for pitch for Scientology.

The New York Times, which covers Goldman Sachs, took a chunk of cash from that Wall Street fixture in order to burnish the investment house’s image, while still pretending to appear neutral about it.

Whom can you trust?

Not even me, as it turns out.

I promised I would tell you a bunch of things I learned while I was naked.

But everything I learned that I shared with you here, I learned while I was dressed.

See? You can’t trust everything you read online.

Not even me.

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