Illustrations: Jenna Arts for The Correspondent
Sometime in June 2003, Mel Karmazin, the president of Viacom, one of the largest media conglomerates in the world, walked into the Google offices in Mountain View, California. Google was a hip, young tech company that made money – actual money! – off the internet. Karmazin was there to find out how.
Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, Google’s founder and its CEO respectively, were already seated in the conference room when co-founder Sergey Brin came in, out of breath. He was wearing shorts. And roller skates.
The Google guys told Karmazin that the search engine’s earnings came from selling advertisements. Companies could buy paid links to websites that would appear at the top of users’ search results. And Google worked as a middleman, connecting websites with ad space to advertisers eager to get their banners seen.
Schmidt continued: “Our business is highly measurable. We know that if you spend X dollars on ads, you’ll get Y dollars in revenues.” At Google, Schmidt maintained, you pay only for what works.
Karmazin was horrified. He was an old fashioned advertising man, and where he came from, a Super Bowl ad cost three million dollars. Why? Because that’s how much it cost. What does it yield? Who knows.
“I’m selling $25bn of advertising a year,” Karmazin said. “Why would I want anyone to know what works and what doesn’t?”
Leaning on the table, hands folded, he gazed at his hosts and told them: “You’re fucking with the magic.”
Is Google hacking your brain?
For more than a century, advertising was an art, not a science. Hard data didn’t exist. An advertising guru of the Don Draper type proclaimed: “What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons” – and advertisers could only hope it was true. You put your commercials on the air, you put your brand in the paper, and you started praying. Would anyone see the ad? Would anyone act on it? Nobody knew.
In the early 1990s, the internet sounded the death knell for that era of advertising. Today, we no longer live in the age of Mad Men, but of Math Men.
Looking for customers, clicks, conversions? Google and Facebook know where to find them. With unprecedented precision, these data giants will get the right message delivered to the right people at the right time. Unassuming internet users are lured into online shops, undecided voters are informed about the evils of US presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, and cars zip by on the screens of potential buyers – a test drive is only a click away.
But is any of it real? What do we really know about the effectiveness of digital advertising? Are advertising platforms any good at manipulating us?
You’d be forgiven for thinking the answer to that last question is: yes, extremely good. After all, the market is huge. The amount of money spent on internet ads goes up each year. In 2018, more than $273bn dollars was spent on digital ads globally, according to research firm eMarketer. Most of those ads were purchased from two companies: Google ($116bn in 2018) and Facebook ($54.5bn in 2018).
Newspapers are teeming with treatises about these tech giants’ saturnine activities. An essay by best-selling author Yuval Noah Harari on “the end of free will” exemplifies the genre: according to the Israeli thinker, it’s only a matter of time before big data systems “understand humans much better than we understand ourselves.”
In a highly acclaimed new book, Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff predicts a “seventh extinction wave”, where human beings lose “the will to will”. Cunning marketers can predict and manipulate our behaviour. Facebook knows your soul. Google is hacking your brain.