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You Need This

I was doing some last-minute online research for an overseas flight when it hit me – I’d forgotten to pack my neck pillow.  It’s hard enough to get a little rest on a plane, and small things like this make a difference.  Shortly after my packing epiphany, an ad for my exact same pillow showed up on the right of my screen.  I’m not entirely sure how it knew.  For that matter, I don’t even know what “it” is.


Most of us are aware by now that our personal data is web-scraped, sold, traded, and otherwise gathered by folks who then use proprietary algorithms to determine everything from the largest home mortgage we can afford to our favorite brand of shampoo.  My grocery store app is always feeding me coupons for things I’ll probably end up wanting, and Amazon is quick to remind me what other shoppers like me are buying.  Marketing is big business – technically sophisticated, secretive, and sometimes dangerous.


None of this is new, other than perhaps the tools and technologies in use.  Looking back at old advertisements will often bring a laugh owing to their sexism or other social prejudices.  Today we cringe at the ad where a smug husband watches his happy wife pushing the new vacuum cleaner he bought her for Christmas around the house.  While ads like this merely reflect a snapshot of the culture in which we lived, others are more insidious. 


Much of the product information we receive is delivered by a “trusted spokesperson”, often someone who became well-known as a result of their acting skills.  Advertisers discovered in the post WW-II era that medical doctors were also trusted professionals, and that anyone wearing a white coat with a stethoscope draped around their neck had instant credibility.  Cigarettes were first marketed by such pitchmen for their health benefits – the ads were later re-written to merely claim that smoking had no adverse effect.  In 1950, Dr. Morton Levin published the first definitive data showing a direct connection between smoking and lung cancer.  Marketers are not giving up, and the worldwide tobacco industry will soon hit the $1 trillion mark.  If you smoke two packs a day and live in a big city, how can we be sure it wasn’t air pollution that rotted your lungs?


Evolving scientific knowledge combined with a partial understanding of physics provides another opportunity for exploitation by marketers.  In the Roaring Twenties, folks were seeking ways to vitalize themselves and be more attractive – Vi-Rex had the answer with its violet ray machine.  Home treatments were the bees knees until the FDA prohibited manufacture of the Vi-Rex, finally seizing the last batch of outstanding machines in 1951.  If you believe that put an end to such nonsense, just Google “light therapy.”


In the mid-19th century, the game of billiards was becoming so popular that it was straining the supply chain for ivory – manufacturers just couldn’t slaughter enough wild elephants to keep up.  In pursuit of a $10,000 prize for finding a substitute, John Hyatt developed a way to treat cellulose derived from cotton fiber to create a suitable hard plastic material.  Environmentalists were thrilled, the elephants were reprieved, and the plastics revolution began.  Chemical companies went to work in search of new plastics, later fueled by World War II’s demand for synthetic replacements to preserve scarce natural resources.  It wasn’t until plastic grocery bags became the convenience du jour in the seventies that the suffocation danger they posed to young children became clear.   Although modern packing materials come with a warning to keep them away from kids, we all still consume an estimated 5 grams of microplastics per week, the actual effect of which is still being studied.


Some will argue that we are much wiser consumers now, and that government oversight combined with our own vigilance will protect us from deceptive advertising.  Consider the case of oral phenylephrine, for many years the only active ingredient in popular OTC cough and cold products.  During cold and flu season, these medicines fly off the shelves, promising symptom relief for many suffering souls.  In spite of all the ads hyping their efficacy, the FDA recently concluded that they are no more effective than a placebo.  According to researchers at Harvard Medical School, the placebo effect is very real – one can’t help but wonder what other placebos we are being sold at premium prices.


Whether online or bricks-and-mortar, vendors subject us to vitamin water, acai berry concoctions, protein bars, CBD creams – a litany of offerings promising better gut health, hormone balance, immunity support, energy fortification, mental sharpness, or medical grade whatever.  As obesity looms large as a major threat to health in America, marketers have responded by promoting off-label drugs, along with a long list of new medicines.  Long term effects of these?.... TBD.


The big print tells us how great the product works, while the small print on the back says there is no clinical proof that it does.  As consumers, we have more tools than ever to do our own research.  Meanwhile, marketers are arming themselves with AI algorithms and ever-expanding volumes of our personal data.  Due diligence and common sense are our best defense.


We need these...more than ever.


Author Profile - Paul W. Smith - leader, educator, technologist, writer - has a lifelong interest in the countless ways that technology changes the course of our journey through life.  In addition to being a regular contributor to NetworkDataPedia, he maintains the website Technology for the Journey and occasionally writes for Blogcritics.  Paul has over 50 years of experience in research and advanced development for companies ranging from small startups to industry leaders.  His other passion is teaching - he is a former Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.


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