A few days ago I had a thought that comes into my noggin every once in a while (and more frequently now that I’m approaching retirement): Some day before I shuffle off this mortal coil, I’d like to own a Mercedes Benz – used, of course. I did not commit this thought to writing in any way, but the very next time I sat down at this keyboard, the good folks at Google provided a banner ad atop my screen: “Pre-owned Mercedes…” They’re reading my mind! I thought. My friend Mike came to a different conclusion: By reading my keystrokes for the last few years (with a soulless keystroke reader), “they” know that I’m a sixty-five year old boomer male approaching retirement who certainly doesn’t make enough to buy a new Mercedes, that my reading and correspondence skew my interests ever so slightly toward a German rather than a Japanese luxury-mobile, and that a demographically placed ad for a pre-owned Mercedes might present just the “it’s now or never” opportunity that I might act on. Pathetic.
As a matter of principle, I didn’t click on the ad (the principle being a protest against our society’s easy acquiescence in the giving up of our privacy), but I have to confess a grudging admiration for the technology. I do not, however, admire the philosophy of the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world, who disingenuously claim that these targeted ads are a favor they are providing for the consumer. My advertising friend tells me to get used to it and get over it – that it’s just an extension of a 1950s Madison Avenue ad for Crest toothpaste. But it seems that the other privacy shoe is yet to drop – that the Zuckerbergian "privacy-is-so-twentieth-century" approach will, too late, be seen to be a favor only for the tyrannical and the amoral, and all of us who carelessly click that we “like” Kraft Mayonnaise will increasingly resemble hapless characters out of 1984 or Brave New World.
What’s both interesting and scary is that the targeted ad technology seems to be getting sharper and sharper. But sometimes they humorously miss the mark. A while back I wrote a piece on marriage. Almost immediately I received a Google Mail sidebar ad offering me “Russian Brides--See Pics.” As a matter of principle, I didn’t click on the ad, the principle being that Caryl was coming into the room and I wasn’t sure what these Russian Brides would look like!