Popular wisdom says that, on the web, the consumer is king. With endless search ability, we can find products, compare prices, and shop with far more freedom than we might in a brick-and-mortar shopping mall. However, in his book The Daily You: How the New Advertising Industry is Defining Your Identity and Your Worth, Joseph Turow reveals the way in which, thanks to the creation of complicated consumer profiles and the implementation of opaque marketing practices, every trip through the worldwide web is shaped by advertisers—whether we like it or not.
The backbone of this system, Turow explains, is made up of cookies—and not the chocolate chip kind. These cookies are packets of data that that track where you click, what you view, and what you buy whenever you visit a website. Cookies have been around since 1995, and in the last fifteen-plus years, they have been joined by other, increasingly sophisticated technologies that allow advertisers to identify our preferences based on our browsing histories.
Sure, it seems kind of creepy—but is it all bad? While occasionally it might be nice to have Facebook offer you a Dairy Queen coupon or have the New York Times website recommend articles for you to read, Turow shows how these seemingly benign uses of digital information veil the more serious consequences of targeted ads. Using the example of a fictional middle class family whose fast-food consumption habits are perpetuated by a barrage of online coupons, which are then followed by advertisements for deals at local gyms, Turow explains the way in which this kind of advertising reinforces patterns of social discrimination, leading us, for good or for ill, down paths that we might not have otherwise chosen.
Turow’s final chapter proposes a series of solutions to the problems The Daily You describes, from media-related education, to policy reforms, and a greater degree of transparency on the part of advertisers. For now, the next time you log onto the computer and see an advertisement—for a car, a new kind of laundry detergent, or an insurance company—take a moment to wonder exactly how it got there.