Americans have a very long love-hate relationship with advertisers — mostly hate. Suspicions have been confirmed that, throughout history, mad men have used mysterious new information technologies to control the public, enticing us to buy or use certain products. To avoid possible brainwashing by commercials, we find ourselves compelled to quickly flip the channel, fast forward past them, resist the slightest urge to click on them, or even ban a certain kind of ad — the subliminal ad — from being broadcast at all. Facebook and Google are now cashing in on the promise of subtle, yet effective ads powered by the latest advances in online profiling. They found that you don't even need to click on these new ads for them to work. As you peruse updates from your friends and family, ads placed at the periphery of your perception are sinking in and working, 40% better than before.
The techniques are barely perceptible. Gradually, ads that personally offend people like you on a subconscious level disappear from view, while the ones you tend to find more agreeable appear more in the side bar and, at times, directly invade your news feed as "Suggested Posts." These are the new unsolicited ads layered in between updates. Terabytes of data feed armies of computers that determine the optimum number of impressions, not too few and not too many, that will best condition you to go out and buy. The ads are tailored specifically for your unique tastes and social preferences, tastes and preferences probably too embarrassing or inappropriate to overtly declare in the online profile you control. This data is recorded in a hidden online profile about you, one you can't edit or even see. For once, our government is responding appropriately by protecting identities and requiring online profilers to notify you of their activities. The choice is yours — safely turn away, or continue to stare blankly as the machine takes control of your mind.
In 1957, a movie theater in New Jersey tested a new advertising technology from a small start-up, the Subliminal Projection Company. Throughout showings of the movie Picnic, two ads were occasionally displayed on the screen, just simple text messages appearing for 300 microseconds every few seconds. The duration and number of these impressions were said to be scientifically derived to maximize the desired response. They were garish, white text messages in bold, all-caps sans-serif reading, "HUNGRY? EAT POPCORN," and "DRINK COCA COLA." Inventor and marketing researcher James Vicay initially claimed that this pilot program of his ad campaign increased sales of Coke 18% and popcorn 58%, but later admitted that he falsified the data, to increase some sales of his own. Since the intensity of the messages was too low for the brain to register, the psychological conditioning of viewers, to buy without realizing it, did not occur. Still, the very idea that advertisers would even try to mess with our minds, in a way we could not perceive, led to public outrage. Almost immediately, Congress tried (and failed) to ban the practice. The concept resurfaced in a few pop-culture references in 1973, creating a new wave of public outrage. The FCC and FTC banned the practice through rule-making anyway in 1974, stating that subliminal advertising is to be considered deceptive and against the public interest, even if ineffective. These bans perhaps came a bit too late, as by then we had already become a race of popcorn-devouring zombies.
"Deceptive" is a strong word, considering the product being advertised in the notorious example was clearly stated in the message, without any false claims. The public took offense more from being ignorant that they were being marketed to at all, or that it was being done with technology that claimed to outwit our own subconscious. It seemed underhanded and impolite, qualities that should perhaps not provide business advantages to those willing to stoop low enough to employ them. Yeah, right.
Courts have entertained arguments against allowing this type of speech in media at all, not just limiting the ban to commercial speech. Protective parents had feared the band Judas Priest was encouraging kids to commit suicide in reverse-speak. Thankfully, subliminal speech was ruled to be protected by the First Amendment, no matter how nonsensical or ineffective.
The specter of subliminal advertising was resurrected in a similar debate that flared up during the dot-com boom of the 1990s. At issue was the unethical use of browser history, cookies and IP addresses tracking that constituted "online profiling." This was the next big threat to those vulnerable to new and little known advertising methods, made possible by hyper text transfer protocol and other technologies invisible to the average internet user. It was conceived that, by observing and recording browsing behavior, an online profiler could potentially know more about you on a subconscious, purchase-decision level — even more than you know yourself. This knowledge could then enable advertising that automatically appeals to all your unique hopes, and exploits all your unique fears — abilities so far reserved to only the most talented and experienced door-to-door salesmen.
In 2000, the FTC ruled on this, but the debate centered more on privacy issues than online profiling. As long as online marketers made a reasonable effort to remove personally identifiable information, they were free to set up databases for the purpose of online profiling. This essentially means that servers can be programmed to protect your privacy by forgetting your address, credit card number, name and birth date — but still know what you like by inferring general but non-specific identifiable factors about you. These would include the city where you live, your sex and gender preference, race, religion, year of birth, which type of payment you prefer to use, income level, etc.
The sci-fi series Babylon 5 provides an analogy for online profiling, and now wonder if it served as allegory for producer J. Michael Straczynski. It denies all access to the Vorlons, who simply want to know, "who are you?" Meanwhile, the Shadows get a complete and unfettered answer to their eternal question, "what do you want?"
Besides the limited anonymity, another important requirement is that online profilers must notify you what they are doing and let you opt out. Recently, Facebook retooled its terms and conditions in order to comply with the online profiling rules released in 2000. By agreeing to use Facebook, for example, "you understand that we may not always identify paid services and communications as such" (From the current section 10, paragraph 3).
It's paying off big for Facebook. In the two years before they went public, advertisers had already paid more than $5 billion for pixels in front of your eyeballs as you scroll down your news feed. We await first quarter financials from Facebook, to be released May 1, but at the ad revenue rate reported for the end of 2012, Facebook rakes in another $5 billion every 3 quarters. This was accomplished with a lot of help from Datalogix, a Facebook partner whose stated mission is "to leverage the power of purchase-based audience targeting to drive measurable online and offline sales."
What is the point of advertising, if not to affect consumer behavior? It could be argued that all advertising manipulates the conscious mind on some level, by necessity. If the duty of the FTC is actually to prevent you from being manipulating by commercials, then they are going to need a lot more funding and Constitutional authority. While wide-scale outrages over technology-driven advertising have faded, opt-out remains the only sensible policy for the personally offended.