The stealth marketing underworld is starting to surface above ground.

Witness this New York Times Magazine piece by George Washington University law professor Jeffrey Rosen:


Who Do Online Advertisers Think You Are?

Not long ago, I decided to test how much privacy I have online. I cleared the cookies, the bits of code that Web sites leave on my computer to track what I browse and buy, from my two Internet browsers, Safari and Firefox. Then, with my digital past superficially erased, I set out to create two new identities: Democratic Jeff and Republican Jeff.

Safari became the home of Democratic Jeff. I started by spending time on Barack Obama’s re-election Web site and then visited some travel, car and shopping sites to search for flights to Los Angeles, Volvos and Birkenstocks. On Firefox, as Republican Jeff, I went to Mitt Romney’s site and then searched for Cadillacs, flights to Hawaii and diamond rings.


Sufficiently self-profiled, Rosen then returned to his usual webitude.

And was surprised at what he found:


[L]ess than two days later, an ad for Mitt Romney suddenly appeared next to a story I was reading on Firefox about Gore Vidal’s burial. When I opened that page on Safari, the ad in the exact same spot was for Catholic University’s master’s program in human resources management.

How did Republican Jeff and Democratic Jeff end up seeing entirely different ads? The answer is real-time bidding, a technology that’s transforming advertising, politics, news and the way we live online. Advertisers compete in an auction for the opportunity to send ads to individual consumers. Each time a company buys access to me, it can bombard me with an ad that will follow me no matter where I show up on the Web.


Welcome to Web You.3, the Internet that’s on you like Brown on Williamson.

It just gets more dispiriting from there.

But you should definitely read this piece, if only to know who’s killing you soft(ware)ly.


John R. Carroll is media analyst for NPR's Here & Now and senior news analyst for WBUR in Boston. He also writes at Campaign Outsider and It's Good to Live in a Two-Daily Town.
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