I Spy, With My Little Eye…

“I can tell you with absolute certainty that I am not influenced by advertising.”

So said my friend, after I handed him a copy of my book, Marketing, My Ass!, the story of how advertisers have infiltrated our minds to the point of no return. My eyebrows shot up in disbelief.

My friend grew up in the same cultural environment that I did, has enjoyed a long, fruitful career in the world of finance, and is now at an age where he’s looking forward to retirement within the next few years and more time with his wife at home. He has a beautiful yet modest house in the suburbs, a pool in the backyard, the requisite two cars, a closet full of business suits, and two grown children who have enjoyed a pleasant middle-class lifestyle. He prides himself (rightly so) with being very up-to-date about what’s going on in the world, and several times a year we enjoy getting together and comparing notes.

“You don’t think you’re influenced by advertising at all?” I asked, one eyebrow still reaching for the sky.

“Nope. Not at all. I zip through commercials on TV and don’t look at them in the newspaper or in magazines. I can’t stand advertising, it bothers the heck out of me. I ignore it.”

hiding 1

Familiarity breeds contempt

He seemed very proud of his ability to “tune out” advertising messages, and I also caught a whiff of appropriate disdain for the industry. Perhaps, having a friend like me who made her career in advertising, he was just glad to finally admit that he never really respected what I did for a living. Then again, I too have recently done a complete back-flip. So we were splashing around in the same pool, but I still got the sense that he was blowing bubbles underwater.

“Do you realize,” I said, “That every time you go on a web site now, you have advertising in your peripheral vision? What about billboards along the highway? What’s that logo on your shirt?”

He looked down at this shirt with surprise. “I don’t know,” he confessed, “It was there when I bought it.”

“Have you heard of guerrilla marketing?” I persisted.

“No,” he admitted, “but it sounds aggressive.”

“Exactly. Someone sits down next to you at a bar, and starts talking about a new beer. He asks if you have tried it, and the two of you strike up a friendly discussion about the qualities of a good beer. Except that he’s being paid by a marketing company to do this, and you’ll never know that you’re talking with someone who has memorized a script and is reporting back to head office.” (It must be a great job for budding actors.)

My friend looked at me with a blank face. He’s used to me trying to shock him.

“Did you also know that, in the New York subway, they are conducting an experiment with vibration advertising? If you fall asleep and your head rests on the plexiglass window, it sets off an advertising message that is conducted through your skull via vibrations. You may or may not be aware of it.”

Again the blank face, this time with a little skepticism. Most people don’t want to believe the lengths that advertisers will go to, to get your attention.  Most people don’t care, either. What are they going to do with this information? Go live in a cave?

No. That’s drastic and unnecessary. For starters, though, let’s be MORE AWARE.

Being influenced is not necessarily an active choice.

Here’s an update from the world of retail, and something I think all Smart Shoppers should know. You’re being watched, counted, tracked, categorized and… eventually…. you will be manipulated into buying something. And this is not something in the pipeline – it’s already happening.

The Silicon Valley tech start-up uses algorithms to interpret data taken from surveillance video cameras and smartphone trackers installed inside some of North America’s biggest retailers.

The video cameras and Wi-Fi trackers can tell store owners important details, like how long a customer spends looking at a specific pair of jeans, whether they take them to the change room and if they end up buying them. Wi-Fi trackers, which can be set up on store shelves, gather data by automatically activating and reading anonymous identifiers in customer’s smartphones. Beyond the identifier, which is a long list of numbers unique to every iPhone, Android, or BlackBerry, retailers do not receive any other personal information about the phone owner.

RetailNext said its mobile analytics technology is used at 400 locations in Canada, including at clothing retailer American Apparel, as well as Bloomingdale’s and Verizon Wireless in the U.S. The cost of buying the software to analyze the data can range anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars a month, depending on the depth of the information requested.


Something Fishy Going On

On a recent episode of CBS’ 60 Minutes, an update on “fish farms” had me scratching my head. What the heck are we doing? Are we coming up with safe and creative ways to have our salmon and eat it too, or are we distorting the natural order and endangering all salmon just to profit from increased demand? The answer is “both”, and consumers will need help in making smart shopping decisions going forward. Let me summarize two scenarios for you to digest.



Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Salmon demand – in response to sushi cravings, a belief that we need more Omega-8 in our bodies, and possibly a greater number of people turning to fish and away from red meat – has doubled in the past 10 years. Doubled. That’s a lot of salmon. And while we once naively believed that our oceans were all-you-can-eat buffets, we now know that – oops! – they aren’t. We’ve seen the cod disappear from the east coast of Canada, wild salmon off the coast of BC is in serious decline, and the world’s oceans have lost a stunning 90% of tuna, swordfish and marlin, since industrialized fishing began. Talk about the consequences of greed.

One fish farmer in BC maintains that farming is just the responsible thing to do. He says that we’ve been farming our other food for centuries, from cows to corn. We’ve cleared space to grow crops and let animals graze, why not do the same with our oceans? His “fish farms”, which constitute a netted area of the ocean itself, help supply world demand without impacting the wild fish. Eat farmed fish, according to him, and you save the real fish from extinction. Of course, his fish are real fish too… taking into account that they can barely swim an inch without bumping into each other, are eating pellets of food prepared to “optimize” their pink colour, and are swimming lethargically over a toxic dump of their own waste, before they’re culled for our dining pleasure.

In Alaska, in stark contrast, the emphasis is on “fish hatcheries”, where fish are bred and raised for a short while before being released into the ocean as “wild salmon”, effectively repleting and possibly over-stocking the numbers in the ocean. The intent here, of course, is to make more for us to take, in order to justify our taking it. It’s like pouring candy into a big bowl while all the children snatch at it, and hoping that there is some left over after the swarm.

Scientists and naturalists are alarmed by both. Fish farms in the ocean habitat run the risk of becoming bacterial hot-beds; the effects on large numbers of fish in such close proximity could be catastrophic if an infection is introduced. As happened off the coast of Chile, a fast-spreading infection would not only slaughter the entire fish population within the nets, but the water-borne germ could then infect the wild fish, and possibly wipe out entire regions of the species. Fish hatcheries, on the other hand, introduce the element of “man” into the equation of nature’s balance, raising questions as to whether or not we’re just perpetuating and possibly exacerbating an already-bad situation.

Speaking of farming…

Daniel Quinn, author of Ishmael, warned us long ago that the agricultural revolution was the beginning of the end. According to his fascinating insights, we should never have started farming anything. We should just be consuming what we need from the wild, each of us, as we need it. It should never have become a business. As soon as farming plants and animals became a for-profit venture, this gave rise to territorial disputes, the need to protect said farms and their harvests, and the sense of “ownership” that we have since maintained over fertile land as the ultimate cash crop. Supply and demand means someone gets to profit and someone gets to eat. Repeat as necessary – until all supplies are gone?

In the course of these discussions, no one suggests that we stop eating salmon. But you might consider doing just that, until you know where your salmon is coming from, and what the long-term impact is going to be on the planet. The ONLY area where we consumers have some control is in the “demand” side of the equation. As long as we’re willing to fork out big bucks for that trendy sushi, that chef-inspired la-dee-da delicacy (to say nothing about paying a small fortune to eat their eggs, how bizarre is that, when you really think about it?) or buy cooked-in-the-can salmon that relies on huge netting operations dredfishging the ocean floor…. well, if you’re part of the problem, you’re not part of the solution.

Think about it. Come to your own conclusions. I’m still scratching my head and feeling bad for the fish, who are the real victims here.


We Now Interrupt This Show…

Television was exciting in the 1950s. Families would gather around this new gadget and stare at it together in absolute fascination. It began a love affair with technology that hasn’t ended. It has, however, evolved to become a more individual experience, with earbuds, tablets and smartphones. A recent CSI episode (old-school television) captured it perfectly in an opening scene – a family of four is seen on a typical evening, each one engaged in a different immersion experience. Dad is watching sports on a laptop. Junior is playing a video game on his tablet. Mom is at the desktop computer paying bills. Daughter is checking email on her smartphone. New tech, new disconnect.


Yet some things never change. Advertisers, for one. Back in the day of TV, viewers would hear “We now interrupt this show to bring you a message from our sponsor…”. We assumed, rightly so, that advertising was part of the offering. The word “commercial” speaks for itself.

So it’s not surprising to see the massive distraction that advertising has become on the Internet. It’s like trying to enjoy your favourite meal while swatting flies out of the way – after a while, you just want to give up. If someone invented a mosquito net app that caught ads, I would buy it in a nano-tech-second.

Content providers were very careful to create the perfect slippery slope – first, we had to grow accustomed to seeing ads on the side and below our content. Flies in our peripheral vision, if you wish. We had to get used to having animated GIFFs jumping up and down and performing acrobatics to get our attention. Messages that “popped” up to surprise us, or crept along the screen to engage us. And as readers fled in annoyance, the advertisers got more clever. How can they annoy us the least and still get our attention?

Enter the creepy stalker ad bar. Front and centre, there’s no escaping it. You have to hop over it to keep reading. It’s been 25 years since the Internet opened up our ability to communicate with a world of interesting people. I just wish that quality content providers would find another way to be rewarded for their efforts. And I wish advertisers would stop following us around like creepy stalkers.


Creepy Stalker Ad Bar

As Clear As Mud

In the last few years, it’s become increasingly clear that food companies engineer hyperprocessed foods in ways precisely geared to most appeal to our tastes… with the goal of maximizing profits, regardless of the effects on consumer health, natural resources, the environment or anything else.
– Mark Bittman, The New York Times, Feb. 26, 2014

Really, Mark Bittman? Increasingly clear to whom? (I’m going to answer my own question with “the media”, because I don’t think the average consumer sees this clearly. I believe that if consumers really understood the collateral damage from the advertising wars, they would be boycotting these large corporations en masse.)


In any case, read the whole piece – it’s very encouraging to see media giant The New York Times take on the issue of corporate culture. Corporations, more specifically the food moguls, are being accused of having little regard for consumers’ health or safety. Profits over people. It’s the status quo these days, or so it seems, and I’m still amazed that we allow this to continue. The comments under the piece feature a wide range of reactions, from “that’s just capitalism at work, stop whining“, to the more cynical “they’re killing us, stop the madness.” A few wise guys point out the obvious – “It’s our choice, to buy or not buy, don’t blame the companies.

The big picture
It’s been over a century since corporations in the USA were granted the same rights as individuals – this happened in 1886, when the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution (the same one used to free individuals from slavery) was extended to include private corporations, giving them the same rights as a natural person. In hindsight, it reads as a knee-jerk reaction to the economic success that some corporations were enjoying. Government saw an opportunity to access big money for their electoral campaigns, and they were right! Corporations are only too happy to invest in massive lobbying and use their bullying influence, as long as it results in regulations that work to their advantage.

So, for the past century, corporations have enjoyed the right to dominate government regulatory decision-makers. They can claim that they are entitled to privacy, and not share any of their information. No longer banned from mergers and acquisitions, they can conquer and divide at will – and we’ve seen where that has brought us, with monopolies and industry giants emerging as corporate control freaks. Immense greed, for both power and profit, has been the ultimate result. We unleashed a monster, and now we have to figure out how to get it back into its cage.

The solution proposed in my book is just one that is being talked about – consumers have more power than we realize, because the money spent by corporations comes directly out of your pockets. Your dollars are being used to finance politicians, bribe corrupt officials, destroy the rain-forests, strip-mine the hills, and pay off the world’s richest CEOs.  Of course, we can keep whining about how unfair all of this is, but that doesn’t seem to make a difference. We can use our votes to ensure more responsible government, but voters have become justifiably cynical about trusting the people at the top or the results from the polling stations. Or we can use our collective power to boycott products and companies until they simply go out of business.

For starters, let’s just be aware of what’s going on. I don’t think it’s “increasingly clear” to the average Canadian that companies are getting away with murder; I think we still have too much blind trust in institutions, including our own government, and it’s time to start asking questions. Never mind “Just do it.” Nike is making a fortune selling ridiculously expensive sneakers to kids who can’t really afford them and don’t need them. Just DON’T do it.

Red Flags For Readers

It’s been a busy month for companies getting caught red-handed and advertisers scratching their heads to find solutions. I’m happy to pass these alerts along to the discerning consumers following this blog, and pleased to report that we have over 100 new subscribers. Please share your thoughts and insights if you have a moment.


First, the “ding” bats at Budget Rent-A-Car have been slapped on the wrist for selling so-called “insurance” and then throwing the fine print back in the customer’s face. That’s never a good move, and it’s sure to produce some unhappy results, as it did in BC recently. Story coverage by CBC here.

Second, Kellogg’s has been crying into its cereal bowl because sales of its popular cereal brands are down – and as a result, over 1,000 people will lose their jobs in cut-backs. It seems shoppers are moving to healthier options such as smoothies, and/or enjoying better prices from rival General Mills. But wait! Despite cuts in people and production, there is still enough money to launch a major ad campaign, slated for the spring of 2014. Keep your eyes closed for that one.


Last but not least, a friend handed me a copy of Wheat Belly, authored by Dr. William Davis. I’ve read enough to be outraged about what Dr. Davis is reporting – that wheat fields all over the globe have been transformed, over the past 40 years, into a hybrid “dwarf” strain which most humans have problems digesting. If Dr. Davis is correct, then the epidemic of diabetes, obesity, and inflammatory diseases, not to mention dementia, can all be traced back to the agricultural world’s high-handed decision to frack with our flour. I’ll keep reading, and do a lengthier report soon. In the meantime, I’m rethinking my consumption of carbohydrates, as should we all.

Let the Cash Grab Begin

When some people raise a red flag, others cry “Don’t be such an alarmist!”  It’s true that fear-mongering is the worst thing we can do in a community, because fear is a virus that travels fast. Yet when you read about banks exerting their considerable influence – in this case, the HSBC putting obstacles between their customers and their cash – it’s hard not to be alarmed.


Too many laws and rules governing all of us are created to thwart the efforts of a few criminals. As large banks and corporations continue to protect themselves from thieves, hackers and other miscreants, the consumer ends up with the short end of the stick. Slowly and surely, this becomes a “guilty until proven innocent” scenario, where people are forced to explain themselves even if they have done nothing wrong.

Personally, I’m shopping around for another bank, after being treated badly by the one I’ve been giving my business to for decades. It’s not that easy, either, because they levy penalties at you for moving your money around. My nephew thinks we should all convert to Bitcoins. I’m wondering if safety deposit boxes will become more popular.

Take a moment to read the linked article below from the BBC newsroom. Consider the long-term consequences. And voice your opinion! If we say or do nothing, we have no one to blame but ourselves, right?


So Funny I Forgot to Laugh

You know those moments – a perfect parody, a classy put-down, a sublime moment when truth meets comedy. Extremely Decent is a sketch comedy group out of Los Angeles, California. Need I say more? Here, they take on the concept of the almighty oligopoly. Think Videotron. Think Bell. Think any company that employs over 1,000 people in an effort to control any product or service. And laugh along with this incredibly perfect satire. Note: Video might not show in notifications, click through to blog.