Studying Digital Marketing in a Post-Privacy Era

As consumers, we’re being watched every minute of every day. Advertisers track us anonymously, share our personal data with marketers, and sell it to the highest bidder.

Joseph Turow, the Robert Lewis Shayon Professor of Communication at Penn’s Annenberg School for Communication, is a longtime observer of these advertising and marketing industry practices and one of the leading experts in the field. His research focuses on media systems, privacy, targeted marketing, and social segmentation.

“Increasingly, from the time you search for a product through the time you go looking for a product in the stores, you are being tracked online and offline,” he says.

Click an online ad to shop for a pair of shoes. Close the browser and like magic, the ad appears on your Facebook page when you open it, and follows you across the internet as you surf several days later, a phenomenon Turow calls the “long click” in his 2012 book “The Daily You: How the New Advertising Industry Is Defining Your Identity and Your Worth.

He says we’re experiencing a “post-privacy era” in which companies have targeted consumers, training us to accept being tracked and surveilled.

People don’t read privacy policies, he says, and when they do, they find it challenging to decode the real meanings of the terms: affiliates, third parties, pixels, beacons.

Turow’s research involves national surveys of consumers that first began in 1999. He found that most Americans misunderstand the meaning of the phrase “privacy policy.” When answering true or false questions about whether a website’s privacy policy means the site won’t share their information with other sites without their permission, between 58 and 65 percent of consumers surveyed answered true—though the correct answer is false.

Increasingly, from the time you search for a product through the time you go looking for a product in the stores, you are being tracked online and offline.

Joseph Turow, the Robert Lewis Shayon Professor of Communication at Penn’s Annenberg School for Communication

Turow contends that retailers are training people to accept surveillance as normal. Their tracking tool of choice is the smartphone, which he says 80 percent of Americans carry, enabling retailers to know when a customer is visiting their brick-and-mortar outlet or a competitor’s store.

“With the mobile app and possibly in other ways, companies can know who you are,” explains Turow. “There’s Wi-Fi. There are beacons that are run by Bluetooth activities. There are lights where companies use the camera of your phone to track where you are.”

Beacons are popular surveillance tools. These little devices are placed at various points around a store to track you. If you have an app on your phone that accepts that particular beacon, the beacon will send out a signal. Your phone will accept the beacon and send a message to a company to tell it who you are, exactly where you are within the range of the beacon, and perhaps send you a discount coupon based upon how valuable the company has determined you are.

This leads to a social discrimination of sorts, Turow says. “So, you may get a different price from me. Prices are changing all the time based on what they [the retailer] knows about you.”

Joseph Turow's new book, “The Aisles Have Eyes: How Retailers Track Your Shopping, Strip Your Privacy, and Define Your Power”

Joseph Turow's new book, “The Aisles Have Eyes: How Retailers Track Your Shopping, Strip Your Privacy, and Define Your Power”

​​​​​In his new book, “The Aisles Have Eyes: How Retailers Track Your Shopping, Strip Your Privacy, and Define Your Power,”a follow-up to his previous book on the advertising industry, Turow deep-dives into how retailers exploit the most valuable type of data they have about consumers: location information.

The book begins with anecdotes, including one from a conference in which an industry consultant predicted that by 2024, 50 percent of Americans would have a chip in their arm, which, when they walked down a store aisle, would tell retailers how nervous the person is about a particular good’s prices and would enable the retailer to decide whether to lower the price or not. By the middle of the century, posits the consultant, everybody will have chips in their arms.

Turow says while chips aren’t being used, retailers have amped up their targeted advertising via existing technology.

“You may be getting ads [on your smartphone] for particular products while you walk past them and messages for a particular product as you walk past them, and so it gives you incentives to be able to be tracked and to want to be tracked,” Turow says.

Outside the store, companies use GPS to “geoconquest.” For instance, a coffee shop sensing your presence near a competitor’s store, could instantly send a coupon to your smartphone for a discount to incentivize you to patronize its shop instead.

Turow believes that there are grave implications presented by ever-constant tracking and hyper-personalization of targeted ads.

Sensing your presence near a competitor’s store, retailers could instantly send a coupon to your smartphone for a discount.

Sensing your presence near a competitor’s store, retailers could instantly send a coupon to your smartphone for a discount.

“Shopping is a big deal. It’s a major part of the public sphere. What happens when our sense of part of the public sphere gets corrosive? Then we begin to worry whether merchants are treating us worse than we thought they ever would because they know things about us,” he says. “Why didn’t I get the same price as another person got? Why are they showing me certain things and not another person things as we’re both online and maybe even in the store?”

Turow’s research shows that the majority of Americans know companies follow them, but don’t understand how data mining or targeting works. They also think the government protects them against price discrimination and the misuse of their information more than it does.

Marketers have said for years that Americans give up their data online, on apps, and in stores rationally, accepting discounts or special offers they receive as tradeoffs. But that’s not true, according to a report released last year that Turow co-authored.

In “The Tradeoff Fallacy: How Marketers Are Misrepresenting American Consumers And Opening Them Up to Exploitation,” with Michael Hennessy of the Annenberg Public Policy Center and Nora Draper, now at the University of New Hampshire, Turow found that when Americans disclose their personal data they’re resigned to the belief that marketers will harvest the data anyway and they feel “powerless to stop it”

The report found that more than half of Americans don’t want to lose control over their information—but also believe this loss of control has already happened.

“What retailers are presenting consumers with is a hidden curriculum. They’re teaching us that giving up data is critical to get along in the 21st century. I think that future generations are just going to take this as a matter of course. They think they can’t do anything about it.”

He wants consumers to get angry and push back. “Getting people angry at this may get companies to slow down.”

Homepage photo: Annenberg Professor Joe Turow focuses his research on the intersection of media, privacy, and digital marketing.

  • Text by Jacquie Posey
  • Video courtesy of Annenberg School for Communication
  • Photos courtesy of Annenberg School for Communication and Mariordo