Wednesday, October 04, 2017

VIFF 2017: You're Soaking In It: an advertising scare-u-mentary

You're Soaking In It, playing this morning at the VIFF, is a crisply-made Canadian documentary designed to scare you about advertising - in particular, what the various ways that internet advertisers keep track of your personal information, collecting stats about your browsing to better target you with ads. There are various interesting bits, like kids watching Youtube "tutorials" on building Lego projects, as part of an advertising awareness-themed computer class, with the kids not realizing that what they are seeing is ads; or the ways Youtube stars can incorporate sponsors into their programmes. There's also an interview with an Ad Block designer who clearly enjoys getting to plug his website in the documentary (which is kind of ironic when you stop to think about it); and lots of math geeks who are happy to be making millions in the age of the adverising algorithm. It all serves to paint a paranoid, Big-Brother-is-Watching-You portrait of the near omniscient powers granted advertisers in the age of the internet, who, we're told, operate unsupervised and unaccountable (and who are obviously quite impressed with their newfound powers, such as they are). You get a lot of scary predictions of the day when billboards themselves will watch your facial features to better determine whas sort of ads to show you, or what parts of ads to emphasize in the next ad, since that's where your eyes lingered... 

Personally, this has never been a topic that has moved me much. When the late Todd Serious used to sing the surveillance-state protest song "It Can't Be Just Me," I would secretly think, "well, it certainly isn't just you, surely, but it sure ain't me." I am and always have been comfortable with a fair degree of public visibility; it seems like a state to aspire to. The less you care about what information people have about you, the less vulnerable you are to their control. Every secret you have is something your enemies have on you. There are things about me I'm happy not to have public, but not many - hence the fairly revealing, warts-and-all nature of this blog; I'm pretty comfortable living in a public sphere. I have too much else on my mind to worry that I may be being surreptitiously filmed while I pee in an alley, as long as they don't mail me a ticket. 

And the current level of advertising intelligence is not something I am that afraid of, either. Let's say, for example, that I type "I'm sure glad I don't have a colostomy," and suddenly discover in my Facebook feed or when I go to Youtube or such that I'm being targeted with a sales pitch for ostomy supplies. That seems to be how these things happen, the level on which intelligence is collected and employed (it was worse in the earlier days of Gmail where basically any email you wrote led to a scrolling banner at the top of your inbox; 'member those?). The thing is: I don't have a colostomy; I don't want a colostomy; I have no plans to get a colostomy; and - it doesn't matter how many ads I see, or how many times I type the word "colostomy" in this paragraph - I'm not going to be buying ostomy supplies anytime soon. They can target me all I like, but in the absence of actually knowing me, based on what I write and say - especially if it's being kept track of by a fuckin' computer algorithm, and not a human being - the noise-to-signal will be overwhelming, with utter omniscience equalling something like utter stupidity. Hell, I don't even use AdBlock, since I realize someone has to pay for the various programs I use. If advertisers are so hungry to influence people that they'll fund millions of dollars worth of websites and apps and games, so be it; I make at least some of my income of such money, when my articles run in magazines that run ads. So sell my information, stockpile it, profile me however you like; you still won't know me. And you won't have much luck influencing my behaviour: the odd movie trailer or sale flyer aside, I can't think of a case where an ad actually moved  me to buy a product. I barely look at them, find them pretty easy to ignore. About my only fuck-you to advertising in life has been that I don't want to run ads on my blog,  since a) I don't have to and b) I like the idea of advertising-free zones. It keeps me at least slightly honest, in theory - though, I mean, even this piece of writing is a kind of ad (albeit not a very enthusiastic one) that I am being rewarded for writing (in terms of my VIFF pass, this year, which is going to get me into at least a couple of movies for free; even here I favour transparency). 

All that said, You're Soaking In It is an entertainingly made scare-u-mentary, visually engaging and quickly-paced and with a clever title (backed up by a clip from the Palmolive ad that it references, which is wise, since I am not sure people under 35 will get the joke otherwise). I was unscared by internet advertising and cookies and such when I went in; I remained so when I went out. There is always the possibility that I'm just dense. If the topic moves you - if you're an Adbusters devotee, say, like the friend who got me out to this the day before yesterday - it's well worth a look. 

You're Soaking In It screens again this morning, at 11am, at International Village, with director Scott Harper in attendance. 

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