Tim Wu /The New York Times – 2016-12-06 23:30:42
Mother Nature Is Brought to You By . . .
Tim Wu /The New York Times
(December 3, 2016) — This year, parks in several states including Idaho and Washington, and the National Park Service, will be blazing a new trail, figuratively at least, as they begin offering opportunities to advertisers within their borders.
King County in Washington, which manages 28,000 acres of parkland surrounding Seattle, offers a full branding menu: Naming rights or sponsorships may be had for park trails, benches and even trees. “Make our five million visitors your next customers,” the county urges potential advertisers.
King County already partnered with Chipotle to hide 30 giant replica burritos on parkland bearing the logo of the agency and the restaurant chain. People who found the burritos won prizes from Chipotle.
In May, the National Park Service proposed allowing corporate branding as a matter of “donor recognition.” As The Washington Post reported, under new rules set to go into effect at the end of the year, “an auditorium at Yosemite National Park named after Coke will now be permitted” and “visitors could tour Bryce Canyon in a bus wrapped in the Michelin Man.”
The logic behind these efforts is, in its own way, unimpeachable. Many millions of people — that is, “green consumers” — visit parks every day, representing an unrealized marketing opportunity of great value. Yes, parks are meant to be natural, not commercial, but times are tough, or so say the backers of the new schemes.
The spread of advertising to natural settings is just a taste of what’s coming. Over the next decade, prepare for a new wave of efforts to reach some of the last remaining bastions of peace, quiet and individual focus — like schools, libraries, churches and even our homes.
Some of this reflects technological change, but the real reason is the business model of what I call the “attention merchants.” Unlike ordinary businesses, which sell a product, attention merchants sell people to advertisers. They do so either by finding captive audiences (like at a park or school) or by giving stuff away to gather up consumer data for resale.
Once upon a time, this was a business model largely restricted to television and newspapers, where it remained within certain limits. Over the last decade, though, it has spread to nearly every new technology, and started penetrating spaces long thought inviolate.
In school districts in Minnesota and California, student lockers are sometimes covered by large, banner-style advertisements, so that the school hallways are what marketers call a fully immersive experience. Other schools have allowed advertising inside gymnasiums and on report cards and permission slips.
The Associated Press reported this year that a high school near South Bend, Ind., “sold the naming rights to its football field to a bank for $400,000, its baseball field to an auto dealership, its softball field to a law firm, its tennis court to a philanthropic couple and its concession stands to a tire and auto-care company and a restaurant.”
Even megachurches, with their large and loyal congregations, have come to see the upside of “relevant” marketing, yielding the bizarre spectacle of product placements in sermons. In one of the first such efforts, pastors in 2005 were offered a chance to win $1,000 and a trip to London if they mentioned “The Chronicles of Narnia” during services. For the 2013 release of “Superman: Man of Steel,” pastors were supplied with notes for a sermon titled “Jesus: The Original Superhero.”
Nor are our workplaces and social spheres immune. The time and energy we spend socializing with friends and family has, almost incredibly, been harnessed for marketing, through the business models of Facebook, Instagram and other social media. At the office, the most successful of the productivity-killing distraction engines, BuzzFeed, brags of luring a “bored at work” network hundreds of millions strong.
Unfortunately, there is worse yet to come: The nation’s most talented engineers now apply themselves to making marketing platforms out of innovations — A.I. assistants like the Amazon Echo or self-driving cars. Here the intrusions will be subtle, even disguised, so as not to trip our defenses, but they will be even more powerful, going after our very decision-making processes. Consider how much we already depend on Siri or Google Maps: What happens when our most trusted tools have mixed motives?
Advertising revenue often seems like “free money,” but there are enormous risks for the character of any institution once it begins to rely heavily on advertising income. History and logic suggest that, once advertisers become a major funding source, they create their own priorities, and unless carefully controlled they will warp the underlying space to serve their interests.
This development raises questions beyond the mere issue of how annoying ads can be. The model of individual liberty and a self-reliant citizenry was proposed by the founders and influenced by philosophers like John Stuart Mill, who envisioned sufficient time and space for self-development of character and room for making decisions that are truly ours.
Similar ideas about the prerequisite of free will are to be found in the great spiritual traditions, which sanctify certain times and spaces for the sake of our spiritual development.
These ideals are threatened by a way of doing business that by its nature seeks to invade the most sanctified of spaces.
If you don’t like the sound of this future, resistance is not futile — it is necessary. A commercial dystopia can be averted only by private resistance and principled decisions by the leaders of institutions.
The first simply requires redrawing the lines that have been eroded. Where once upon a time, tradition or religion drew those lines for us, blocking out times for family and faith, nowadays personal or family initiative are required to define parts of our lives as off limits. The default setting will always be intrusion and distraction. We need to flip the switch.
The second should be to reduce the attention economy by patronizing businesses or institutions with subscription models or those that keep advertising within reasonable limits.
Third, the leaders of schools, libraries and even the more principled technology firms should understand that there is always a hidden cost to the proposition offered by advertising. Once an institution is dependent on ad revenue, it’s impossible to put the Crest 3D White Radiant Mint toothpaste back in the tube.
Above all, we should not simply resign ourselves to a world saturated by commercial appeals at the cost of our private and sacred spaces. As the great legal scholar Charles Black Jr. once put it, “I tremble for the sanity of a society that talks, on the level of abstract principle, of the precious integrity of the individual mind, and all the while, on the level of concrete fact, forces the individual mind to spend a good part of every day under bombardment with whatever some crowd of promoters want to throw at it.”â€
Tim Wu is the author of The Attention Merchants: The Epic Struggle to Get Inside Our Heads.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.