Not only will Google now target ads at you based on your interest, but it will also let you target yourself. Anyone can go to Google’s Ad Preferences Manager and see exactly how Google is categorizing their interests. (Most people will probably see nothing right now, since this program is only being rolled out on a test basis and will gradually expand). Now, here’s the really smart part: Google lets you add or remove any interest. In effect, it is inviting you to declare what kind of ads you wan to see. You can also opt out of the program completely.In other words, instead of fearing the impulse to opt out of advertising, as television networks have, Google has found a way to transform that preference into useful demographic data that pertains not only to the person exercising her or his choice but to many others who fail to do so, either because they don't care or don't know how. That makes sense, from a marketing standpoint, and is another indication why Google is one of the corporations likely to emerge from the collapse of the global financial system in a position of dominance.
While most people will probably never bother to tweak their ad preferences or even be aware that they can, this represents an important new precedent in online advertising. Why should the ad networks be the only ones who can determine how to target ads at consumers? Why not let the consumers self-target if they care to do so?
Google knows that its interest-based targeting algorithms need a lot of work. Even if it can get just a small percentage of people to correct the algorithm, that data theoretically could be applied to other people with similar browsing patterns. Google gets to say that it is giving users more privacy and control, while collecting really valuable data that will help make its targeting more effective. In the online ad game, whoever can target the best can charge the most.
Yet the implications for this approach from the standpoint of cultural theory are disturbing. From my perspective, the insidiousness of this form of data collection inheres, not only in the use of active participants' information on those who remain passive, but in the psychological impact the distinction between these categories has for those who believe that they have a right to control the marketing that confronts them. If the people who take charge of the stream of advertising directed at them on Google perceive themselves as evading manipulation in that context, they are more likely, I'd argue, to transpose this perception to other contexts. The most sweeping trend in contemporary consumer society, exemplified by the culture that has developed around the iPod, uses the specter of standardization à la Fordism to advance the cause of customization, even as the "right" to customize becomes the vehicle for new forms of standardization.