We are excited to present our interview with Professor Joseph Turow, the Robert Lewis Shayon Professor of Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication.
In 2010, the New York Times called him “the ranking wise man on some thorny new-media and marketing topics.” He is well-known in the industry for his national surveys of the American public on issues relating to marketing, new media, and society. Turow has authored ten books, edited five, and written more than 150 articles on mass media industries.
We talked to him about digital privacy as well as his upcoming book, The Aisles Have Eyes: How Retailers Track Your Shopping, Strip Your Privacy, and Define Your Power.
1. What sparked your interest in studying digital privacy?
My interest in digital privacy grew with my interest in digital marketing.
I have been fascinated with the advertising industry through most of my life; I began subscribing to Advertising Age when I was 17 years old. In the early 1990s it began to be clear to me that advertising was going through major changes in its approaches to audiences and that developments in the use of data that were leading to new forms of segmentation and targeting would have profound consequences for the media system and American society.
My first book on the subject, Breaking Up America (1996) explored the early years of this transformation of marketing, just around the time the internet was becoming a commercialized domain. My next two books on the topic, Niche Envy (2006) and The Daily You (2011) followed the transformation of marketing into the digital interactive era, when the gathering of data about individuals for increasingly personalized persuasive messages was becoming a hallmark of all sorts of new media.
The more I learned, the more concerned I became that novel advertiser-driven forms of commercial surveillance were having problematic short- and long-term implications for privacy. National telephone surveys I have carried out since 1999 have reinforced this concern as well as my worry that while Americans know marketers track them, Americans are very much in the dark about the complex ways marketers use their data. Americans are also under the mistaken belief that the governing protects their privacy in the commercial arena more than it does.
2. Silicon Valley, in some sense, is built on the idea of openness, also with data. Yet, your research shows that the average American would like to be far more defensive with their data than Silicon Valley believes is warranted. What risks do you see in Silicon Valley not understanding this concern that many “average Americans” have?
The putative openness of Silicon Valley certainly does not include candidness or plain talk about the ways companies get data about people; how they meld the data from first, second, and third parties for segmentation and personalization; and what specific types—and origins—of data about them are used when they see particular personalized ads or other types of personalized content. Privacy policies are not helpful.
Whether this purposeful obfuscation poses a risk for Silicon Valley is an interesting question. Marketers often use data about individuals to decide what messages, ads, and/or discounts to send them. This sorting of people in ways that the subjects of the sorting don’t know or understand—and over which they exercise no control—may well lead to anger, the shaming of marketers that do that, and even laws limiting certain discriminatory practices.
Our national surveys have found that people are certainly concerned about marketing surveillance. So far marketers have managed to avoid wide-scale discontent, possibly because large segments of the population are unaware of how deep and wide their surveillance has become. That may change.
3. In your upcoming book, The Aisles Have Eyes, you explore the use of consumer data by retailers. What makes this book important to read?
The Aisles Have Eyes explores why retailers have decided they must bring internet-like surveillance activities into their physical stores, how they are doing that, and what the implications are for retailing and society at large. In view of so much media emphasis on internet shopping, people are often surprised to learn that about 90% of purchases still take place in physical stores.
I have found that many people who work in retailing—in department stores, supermarkets, chain stores—don’t understand what’s happening behind the scenes, so this book will get them up to speed about what’s taking place around them. Americans outside the retailing industry surely don’t realize how a panoply of technologies—WiFi, Bluetooth beacons, sound waves, light waves, and more—is changing what they will see in stores; what personalized messages they receive before, during, and after shopping; and how (depending on their profiles) they might receive better or worse prices than others as they move through the aisles. I’m happy to say that the influential pre-publication review magazine, Kirkus Reviews, agrees with me. The Aisles Have Eyes, it says, is “Valuable reading for shoppers and retailers alike.”
4. What surprised you the most as you did the research for this book?
What surprised me most as I conducted research was how forthcoming the executives I interviewed were about the development of this new retailing environment. Their disclosures about the technologies and their forthright descriptions of the various strategic considerations guiding them enrich the book greatly. Several of them also frankly shared their worries that some of what their companies are doing might cross important privacy lines.
However, they acknowledged that the hyper-competition taking place makes it difficult to disengage from headlong rush into the new data-driven world.
5. There is a perception among many that traditional brick and mortar retailers have fallen behind the times regarding data analytics as they lose market share to online-only competitors. Yet, your book seems to suggest that even the traditional brick and mortar companies are extremely sophisticated. Do you think they have caught up? If so, how are they closing the gap?
Some brick and mortar retailers are becoming quite sophisticated in their data analytics and the tracking of consumers as they move through the aisles. That tracking is not yet as sophisticated as online or in apps, but it is far ahead of what was possible a decade ago.
As The Aisles Have Eyes shows, though, in today’s world the choice is not either the internet or the brick-and-mortar store. The major physical retailers have extremely sophisticated internet and brick-and-mortar operations, and they are increasingly linking the two when it comes to shopper tracking as well as the gathering and use of data about shoppers. That is the future of our retail environment.