Every day, most of us engage in an uneasy truce with capitalism’s greedy forces. We understand that businesses want to bleed our bank accounts dry, and businesses know that we want their products. Many of us are so used to this shaky alliance that we cease to give it much thought, but director Scott Harper’s advertising industry documentary, You’re Soaking in It, aims to shock us out of our comfort zones. The film charts the industry’s evolution from the bygone era of fast-talking pitchmen to today’s data-driven approach. The result is a sobering look at a profits-driven industry that knows us far better than we think.
In 2017, the internet is a necessary part of our daily routines. We go online to pay bills, email co-workers, study, watch movies, and stay in touch with friends. Each one of these ventures into cyberspace leaves behind a digital trail. Companies mine our digital interactions for the slightest hints concerning where we live, how much we earn, and what interests us. After acquiring this data, companies create consumer profiles that give them a marketing edge.
When we go online, we barter our privacy (name, age, email address) for access to convenient services. You’re Soaking in It does an excellent job outlining the repercussions of these trade-offs. In one segment, Harper profiles an application called Lightbeam. Lightbeam is a browser add-on that creates a visual representation of first and third party sites you interact with on the web. We see a user browse only two sites, Google and The Washington Post, and the result is shocking: 72 third-party trackers pop up. These trackers have the ability to share user data with other trackers, multiplying the number of places where your personal data can end up. Lightbeam’s visual tracking system hammers home the film’s message in a way that even internet Luddites can grasp. It’s one thing to be told you’re at risk, but it’s another to see dozens of sketchy data mining apps ransacking your personal info.
The romantic notion of the slick, Scotch-drinking, Madison Avenue ad man/woman is a thing of the past. Today, Silicon Valley is looking to annihilate Madison Avenue. For the longest time, agencies launched ad campaigns based on their instincts, gut feelings, and whatever felt right. The impact of “successful” campaigns are notoriously difficult to measure, as in the wake of an ad’s success, it’s hard to determine whether a campaign created a tsunami of interest or was only riding the wave. In the digital age, however, vague marketing hunches are going the way of the dinosaur.
Harper profiles the new generation of marketing gurus, a batch of tech-savvy millennials who blow off steam with an indoor LARPing battle. These programmers are math-Narcos that traffic in cold hard facts – they convert personal data into detailed consumer profiles. These “mathmen/women” can determine your tastes, intelligence level, and even your mood. Their computer algorithms hyper-target consumers with the ruthlessness of the Terminator, and they’re improving every day. Imagine leaving work with a tension headache and having your phone spam you with pain relief medication before you even get to your car. That future isn’t so far off.
Intrusive advertising practices are so commonplace that they’ve become normalised – when is the last time you opted out of an invasive terms of service agreement? While consumers plug personal info into their social media feeds, ad agencies’ finely-tuned algorithms get craftier by the minute, and the combination sounds like a recipe for disaster. You’re Soaking in It doesn’t offer up any definitive solutions to the issues it calls attention to, but the film does, however, create awareness, which brings us one step closer to fixing the problems.
Hot Docs 2017 runs April 27 – May 7. For movies, showtimes, and ticket purchases go to www.hotdocs.ca