Black Ops Advertising is a startling and entertaining critique of new forms of advertising, but the solution lies in collective organising, argues Lindy Syson
Mara Einstein, Black Ops Advertising (O/R Books 2016), 248pp.
Those of us using social-media sites such as Facebook and Twitter will notice the increasing extent of advertising and how intrusive the adverts can be. Adverts are, of course, a lucrative income stream for social-media corporations given the extent of their global reach to consumers and the ease with which adverts can be produced.
The development of digital advertising is the subject of Mara Einstein’s book Black Ops Advertising. Her focus is not, however, on traditional adverts where the content, brand and manufacturer details are obvious. Instead, the book is a fascinating and revelatory critique of the ways in which digital adverts increasingly masquerade as news items, quizzes, ‘guess-what-happened-next’ videos, or lifestyle advice. Einstein calls this phenomenon ‘black ops advertising’where ‘advertising and editorial’ (p.27) are merged to such an extent that it is difficult to distinguish a news story from adverts (or what are called ‘sponsored content’). The term ‘black ops’ is deliberately used to draw an analogy with the use of technology in covert military operations carried out at a distance. Similarly, social-media advertising is both increasingly subtle and camouflaged, yet at the same time can be combative and aggressive in its relentless spread.
The background to this development, Einstein explains, stems from the move from TV and newspapers to on-line viewing, resulting in a loss of advertising revenue. Media companies then had come up with new strategies to ensure continued revenue from advertising. However, they had a further challenge: given that people can be irritated and exasperated by constant on-line advertising and click away from adverts, advertisers have to make ads that are either so appealing and engaging or so subtle and embedded in other content that we are not even aware of them. Hence the rise of covert or ‘black ops’ advertising.
Einstein gives the example of how in 2013, The Atlantic, a high-quality news magazine in the United States, ran what appeared to be a news story about the Church of Scientology. Presented in exactly the same layout and typeface as any other news article, this was, in fact, an advert for - and written by - the Church of Scientology. The Scientology logo and the words ‘sponsored content’ appearing at the end of the piece were not enough to prevent a backlash from readers. The Atlantic issued an apology, promising to re-think its advertising strategy. For Einstein, this was simply an example of a media company testing out a strategy of ‘native advertising’, where an advert becomes indistinguishable from the rest of the site content.
In another example of ‘black ops’ advertising, Einstein recounts a dramatic event in 2012 where Felix Baumgartner took part in a dive from 128,000 feet above earth, landing safely after travelling at 844 miles per hour. This widely reported event wasn’t a NASA or any other scientific research project, but an event developed and paid for by Red Bull, the energy drinks manufacturer. In Einstein’s view, the Red Bull logos discreetly placed on Baumgartner’s spacesuit and space-pod were not sufficient to differentiate this advert from a news feature.
Entire sites, such as BuzzFeed which attracts twenty million visitors a month, can be based on the use of ‘black ops’ advertising. This news and entertainment website (which is actually listed on the financial companies’ database as an advertising agency) is aimed at the 18-34 age group and creates content (advertising) that is entertaining and easy to share. Although the content on this and similar sites is branded as ‘sponsored content’ this isn’t always easy to see and Einstein’s concern is that the majority of people visiting the site may not be aware that sponsored content actually means advertising. It is worth noting here that Einstein isn’t opposed to advertising so long as it is clearly marked. Pointing out that advertising is not free because we pay for it with our time and attention and the personal data that we release to marketers, she would personally prefer to pay for content that excludes adverts:
‘Given the choice, $12 a year for Facebook is a pittance in comparison to the price we pay in personal data, skewed reality and de-personalised human relationships’ (p.196).
This quotation brings out some of the particular concerns that Einstein has about ‘black ops’ advertising. First, she argues that our identities and relationships are exploited by these new advertising strategies. Branding has always been a feature of advertising but Einstein points to ‘lifestyle branding’ as a new development and part of a strategy of connecting to the values and way of life of consumers. As part of this strategy, on-line marketers want to be our friend, develop relationships with us and create fun videos that we will re-tweet and share. This personalisation and sharing of advertising leads Einstein to argue that ‘relationships have been monetized’ (p.16).
Second, she challenges the view that our ability to create, co-create and share content is in any way empowering.Social networking sells products and when we share we promote the product. Advertising campaigns encourage us to upload videos or pictures; vote for a favourite Starbucks coffee or think up a new flavour for crisps in exchange for freebies or vouchers. This ‘myth of empowerment’ hides the difficulties consumers have in challenging companies. Consumers may thinkthey have power by taking to twitter or other media to express their criticisms, but this generally doesn’t have a long-term impact on companies that are adept at managing and neutralising customer feedback.
Third, underpinning all of this advertising is big data. Google, the number one search engine has 1.44 billion users (the number two search engine is YouTube, owned by Google). Einstein outlines how, as we click on content or use search engines, we leave data which companies use to track our moves, our interests and our preferences. Our on-line searches are packaged and sold as commodities to advertisers who use the data to reach consumers in a targeted way. Google makes billions of dollars not only through advertising or selling advertising space, but selling data about those using the site.
Finally, Einstein is concerned that we are simply being misled by ‘black ops’ advertising. She quotes research studies (p.112) that appear to show the difficulty people have in distinguishing between advertising and editorial content, arguing:
‘With no physical structure or designation to tell us the difference between advertising and editorial content there is no way to decide which article should get precedence over another for our attention’ (p.144).
Einstein’s conclusions revolve around the need to raise awareness about ‘black ops’ advertising and her carefully researched book does this in ways that are startling, informative and entertaining in equal measure. However, this is a pessimistic book, where social-media advertising is presented as engulfing and overwhelming consumers who find themselves caught up in a mindless re-tweeting and sharing paradigm.
The 18-34 age group (the ‘millennials’) are particularly targeted by advertisers, according to Einstein, and are either unaware of ‘black ops’ advertising or if they are, refuse to accept that they are influenced by this phenomenon. This view leads to her conclusion that taking back control as consumers means changing our individual behaviour. Some are practical suggestions, for example using software to block adverts and let you know who is tracking your device. Other suggestions involve moving away from digital or moderating the use of on-line sites. For example, she claims that: ‘If you want real consumer empowerment there’s one simple thing you can do: stop sharing content’ (p.190).
However, the ‘agency’ and ‘empowerment’ that Einstein encourages is ineffective if it rests at the level of individual refusal to engage with content. She believes that:
‘Eliminating digital technologies is unrealistic. Eliminating the corporations that have a chokehold on the system is not. Until that happens we can become more aware and through awareness we can increase our agency’ (p.210).
Although she is scathing in her criticism of the multi-national media corporations, her suggestion for challenging the ‘Big Four’: Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook, is to call on governments to regulate the companies’ behaviour and to break up their increasingly monopolistic power. However, the weakness of this strategy is shown by the recent EU ruling that Apple should pay back £11 billion in taxes to the Irish government. Apple andthe Irish government are both appealing this ruling! Not only does it show the continued power of multinational corporations but importantly it shows how national governments are prepared to intervene to support these corporations at the same time as imposing austerity measures on the majority of working people.
What is needed is a strategy that resists the huge corporations that make billions in profit by exploiting us as workers and as consumers, as well as the national governments that support them. The fight against austerity is a fight against both big business and the state. Campaigns against cuts in welfare services, in fact all fightbacks against savage neoliberal policies, will be far more effective in challenging social media and ‘black ops’ advertising than the individualistic strategies of refusal and opt-out that Einstein suggests. Indeed, social media, notwithstanding the tracking and surveillance aspects, can become a powerful tool in the hands of activists and campaigners in organising, educating and fighting back.
Black Ops Advertisingis available exclusively from O/R Books.
Lindy is an ex-teacher who now works in higher education. She is also studying part-time for a PhD. Her research topic is critical pedagogy and academic activism. Lindy is a member of Counterfire.