Last night I received a phone call from Ipsos Reid. For some reason I had it in my mind that this was a government or public survey company. I forget the woman's opening line as to the importance of this survey, I am sure the word 'improvement' was in there somewhere.
The first question seemed important enough.
(her) Q - What would you say is the most important issue that the Canadian government should be addressing.
(I immediately thought of the war in Afghanistan, but that seemed to be somehow a programed response. After thinking for a moment . . . )
(me) A - The need to create sustainable jobs and address the increasing income inequality.
There were perhaps one or two more questions on politics and then suddenly there was a dramatic shift.
(her) Q - What would you say is the most frustrating aspect of shopping?
a) Fumbling in your pocket for change?
b) Having to swipe your debit card?
c) Waiting for someone else to be through ahead of you?
(wheels slowly started to turn in my head)
(me) A - Ummm I'm not too concerned about any of those things.
(her) Q - How much time would you say you spend shopping in a given week?
a) 10 minutes
b) 30 minutes
c) 1 hour
d) 2 hours or more
(me) A - Ahhh . . .
(me) Q - what did you say this research was for?
(her) A - Oh don't worry all of this information will be confidential
(me)Q - (in my head - so no one reads it)
(me) Q - So you have companies purchasing this information?
(her) A - Yes they purchase it in order to improve the economy (or seriously something like that)
(her) Q - Do you want to continue this survey?
(me) A - No.
It was interesting that this morning I just began reading an article by William Cavanaugh called The Unfreedom of the Market. Part of what he addresses in the inequality of information between producer and consumer. This information empowers companies to play on our desires and frustrations while keeping their realities highly veiled. Geez I almost gave my goodies away for free!
It is of course true that advertising does not work on each individual like a lobotomy does. Tracing cause and effect is difficult. The individual does not react like a programmed zombie upon being exposed to effective advertising. As Michael Budde puts it, being subjected to advertising is more akin to playing poker against an opponent who, unbeknownst to you, has already seen the hand you are holding, in a slightly blurred mirror. You still exercise free will, but the dynamics of power have shifted because the situation is set up to advance the interests of others. This imbalance of power happens in two related ways. First, surveillance ensures that the balance of information is decidedly in favor of the marketer. Not only do marketers withhold information about a product from consumers, or divert their attention to evocative images unrelated to the product itself. Marketers also gather extensive information about individual consumers and target their efforts based on this disequilibrium of knowledge. Erik Larson details this phenomenon in his book The Naked Consumer: How our Private Lives Become Public Commodities. Larson began research for the book when, a few days after the birth of his second daughter, a sample of Luvs diapers showed up on his doorstep, courtesy of the Procter & Gamble Corporation. His eldest daughter had already received birthday greetings, just days before turning one, from a marketer on behalf of several corporations such as Revlon and Kimberly-Clark who were selling toddler-related merchandise. Larson describes how information on our purchasing patterns, births, deaths, political views, educational levels, credit histories, pet ownership, hobbies, illnesses, and so on is harvested from credit card records, bank statements, hospital records, websites visited, answers to surveys, frequent buyer cards, even filmed records of our shopping habits in stores. Such surveillance has become incredibly sophisticated: a flyer for "OmniVision," a system developed by the consumer intelligence service of Equifax, boasts "We think we know more about your own neighborhood than you do, and we’d like to prove it!"