The Dark Side of Marketing: Big Brother Really Is Watching

What if I told you…

… that when you visited a certain website, every single thing you do is being monitored? I’m not just talking about what you click on or what you buy. Most of us have at least an inkling that companies are doing that. I’m talking about actual recordings being made of where your mouse pointer goes, how you scroll, where you hover.

And what if I told you that this information is not being collected in the aggregate, that your behavior on a webpage is not just being lumped with thousands of others to create some big picture, but that your individual behavior on the website is very much attributable to you.

Would you feel like you were being spied upon?

Because you are.

And that’s just a small piece of it.

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Now, maybe you would be OK with this or at least accept it if it were from a company that brings a lot into your life — the connectivity Facebook allows among you and your friends, the ease of getting stuff Amazon delivers. You shouldn’t be, but that’s for another blog.

But what if the company was, say, your insurance company or the business through which you had your retirement account or your pension?

Would you want to stop doing business with that company? What if you did but you couldn’t because it was the company that provided your benefits for your job?

“But I can!” you say. “I just won’t deal with them online. I’ll do things the old-fashioned way, via paper and the mail.”

Good idea!

But what if this business was making hundreds of thousands of dollars of investments in this kind of Big Brother technology and, in the process, was essentially forcing you to do business with them online by eliminating things such as paper forms and mail-in capabilities.

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Would you feel a bit stuck? Like even if you wanted to protect your privacy that you couldn’t?

What if it was even worse than that? What if this company invested further hundreds of thousands of dollars on something called “marketing automation?” This software allows the company to send you marketing materials based on your online behaviors and demographics. What you do with that electronic marketing material, everything from if you open it to when you open it to what links you click, is being stored in a growing profile on you. Now, the company’s employees sign a form each year to promise to not access your profile for any nefarious reason. And your profile is, indeed, locked down to keep it away from most people in the company. But those who have access to it? Well, they’re using it to try to manipulate you, to put it bluntly.

Because, you see, this company also has spent more hundreds of thousands of dollars buying research and hiring researchers who are well-versed in psychographics, which is essentially the ability to segment individuals based on their attitudes and beliefs and aspirations. These people sometimes go under the guise of “data analysts,” but know this: The data they are analyzing is not some set of numbers; it’s you. Everything about you. Everything.

“But how can a company know what I want out of life?” you ask.

Easy. The research tells them. The data tell them. Enough data has been gathered and shared and is for sale that marketing folks can pinpoint with a startling degree of accuracy your “type.” Even if you think you don’t have a type, well, that in and of itself is a type. So you have a type.

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Armed with all this data and information about you, you are then spoon-fed messages at times, in places, in formats and with very carefully chosen verbiage that is most likely to spur you to act in the way the company wants you to act, to do the thing they want you to do. And how you interact with these messages, just like your web behavior, is all being logged to your profile so that the success of future messages — meaning, their ability to get you to do what they want you to do — is more likely.

Now, though this sounds very Orwellian (because it is), it might be sorta kinda OK if the company were acting in your best interest. But know this: There is no such thing as “the company” in real life. There are people who join together to operate “the company.” And these people have motivations that aren’t always in your best interest.

For example: It is not a bad thing to encourage people to invest in a retirement fund. Having money for retirement is a good thing. But is it a universal good thing?

Say you’re a new college graduate. College can be expensive. You just graduated with tens of thousands in student loan debt. And your savings is less than $1,000. This is an extremely realistic situation for new graduates. And the executives who lead “the company” know that. They just might not care.

You see, the company is being held to certain performance goals, often dictated by executives looking to please a board that might meet quarterly or, perhaps, monthly. The company wants X percentage more people to participate in the retirement fund. That’s the goal. And good companies reward success, right? So people at varying levels of the company have their year-end bonuses attached to the company meeting its goals. The more goals the company meets, the higher those bonus checks are. The people who have the most to gain from meeting the goals? Well, they’re the people with the higher salaries, because 5 percent of the $100,000 the Marketing Director is making is more money than 5 percent of the $50,000 the graphic designer is making. And who gets to call all the shots on what the graphic designer has to design (and what all the do-ers have to do)? The Marketing Director!

So let’s return to the college graduate. It is most definitely not in her best interest to start contributing to a retirement fund when she is covered in debt and has no savings. What any responsible financial person will tell her to do to put herself in the best position to save for retirement is to pay down her debt and create an emergency fund to deal with the unexpected expenses that come seemingly at the worst possible time. There are people in the company who know this. You’d like to think the Marketing Director does, and maybe you’re right. But a lot of times it’s “the do-ers.” They know that it is morally the right thing to have a different campaign to encourage recent college graduates to pay down their debt and save some money. But there’s no company goal that rewards what is actually in the best interest of this type of customer. And for the Marketing Director, he’s got $5,000 riding on reaching the retirement-fund goal. So is he going to push the do-ers (the graphic designers and copywriters, etc.) to widen the marketing campaign to attract more people to do what he needs them to do to get his bonus? He shouldn’t. But he does.

And it works. The do-ers use the data to create marketing pieces that get people to do what is not in their best interest. They use the words that play on that demographic’s emotions. They send it at times when that demographic is most likely to take action in a way that appeals to who they are. And, not surprisingly, the targeted demographic acts. With each person who acts, the company is closer to its goal and the Marketing Director is closer to his bonus.

Yes, you should feel icky about this.

Now, here’s some good news: Not all companies are like this. I work for a company now that is not like what I’ve described above. Yes, we like to use data to make decisions, but we don’t hire research analysts and obsessively watch your interactions with our website or invest in marketing automation software that enables us to prey on your emotions to do things that aren’t in your best interest. There also aren’t bonuses that lead people to act counter to what’s best for our customers.


More companies are of the Orwellian type today than there were last year … and the year before that… and the decade before that. The ability to collect personal information has never been greater, and people unknowingly give it over with every online interaction they have with some companies. Returning to Facebook, if you think they care one iota about the connectivity they provide for you and your friends, just stop for a second and think: How much money does the company make from the ability it gives you to like your friend’s gender reveal video? Exactly zero. Where does Facebook make its billions? We’ll talk about that another time.

So what’s the point of all this?

Firstly, consumers need to be aware that this goes on and that the companies that do it might surprise you. Secondly, marketing people need to put up a red flag and watch Jurassic Park. As Dr. Ian Malcolm says:

Just because you can doesn’t mean you should! Yes, you can be part of a department that collects massive amounts of data on unsuspecting people and then use that data to get people to do what isn’t always in their best interest just so you and, more likely, your bosses, get big, fat bonuses. But when does this type of stuff start affecting how well you sleep at night? Do you need to be confronted with the recent college graduate who has a nice little retirement nest egg that’s growing but can’t pay for the prescription drugs she needs to return to work or to pay to replace the refrigerator that broke?

When marketers stop seeing their customers as people and start seeing them as data points, they are crossing into dangerous territory, and let me tell you, no one crosses that line intentionally. It’s a gradual devolution. Data equals power in the modern marketing world, and if you are one of the fortunate ones who has access to that which can make people act, well, you must be pretty highly thought-of by your company. But ask yourself this: Has it changed you? Has it led you to do things to others that you wouldn’t want done to, say, your mom? Your little brother? Your grandmother?

Isn’t there a little part of you that is bothered when you’re asked to do something that is, well, just a tad creepy?

Or maybe this will wake you up: What if you were completely transparent with your customers? And no, I’m not talking about the fine print or the terms of service your customers absentmindedly say they’re OK with. What if you promoted what you were doing to collect people’s data and how you’re using it with as much gusto as you’re using to push that Facebook post or email marketing campaign? What would your customers think of you? Would they be angry? Would that anger be justified? Could you stand before them, eye-to-eye, and justify your Big Brother Marketing Program?

The bottom line: Consumers need to know this type of marketing is going on and that it is being done by companies they might not expect. Worse, these companies are often ones that consumers have no choice but to deal with and they are purposefully eliminating ways to do business with them in a manner that protects customer privacy.

And marketers need to start raising objections when their companies move too heavily in this direction. Good people need to be willing to say “no” and, if they are shouted down, to find a different place of employment that appreciates their skills and, more importantly, their morals.

The Dark Side of Marketing is dark and getting darker. Let’s stop it.

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