Paranoia rises as ad biz digs into auds' secrets

I’ve never considered myself paranoid, but I am growing antsy about all those people out there who are collecting data about me.

Netflix knows my taste in film, Simulmedia can predict which TV shows I will watch, TiVo has insight into my politics, Cablevision can access my drug prescriptions and target TV ads accordingly, and who knows what information I’ve inadvertently exposed on Facebook or MySpace?

This much is clear: There are companies out there that want to “target” me. I think I’d prefer blending into the faceless crowd.

Some of the companies that collect data decided to share notes the other day at an ad-targeting conference sponsored by Broadcasting & Cable. Delegates were bobbing in a sea of data — numbers on consumers taken from set-top boxes, credit cards and a myriad of other sources that keep track of our behavior, both good and bad.

It’s the advertisers who crave all this. As the Wall Street Journal reported, if a company like Cablevision can beam specifically targeted ads at set-top boxes — ads keyed to consumers’ habits — they will successfully fend off their rivals in the new media.

But the implications are troubling. Given the numbing volume of Cialis and Viagra ads already on TV, what happens if a consumer goes out and buys the product? His TV set will become permanently engorged with erectile dysfunction commercials.

The data gatherers, of course, claim that consumers can opt out of all this, but to do so requires a mastery of codes and bureaucratic procedure. Anonymity is becoming ever more difficult to achieve.

One reason advertisers are jumping on this new technology is that they’re utterly baffled by the dizzying demos they stare at every day. Media analysts acknowledge that they’re having a senior moment. The median age of TV viewers of top shows has escalated by 10 years over the past 20 years.

The sweet spot for marketers has always been the youth demo, but in the present economy it’s the baby boomers (80 million of them) who command the money, while their twentysomething kids are still living at home, looking for a job and renegotiating their allowances.

The inverse ageism apparent in TV stardom is a symptom of all this. The hot names on network TV are Tom Selleck, age 66; Mark Harmon, 59; and the 62-year-old rock-n-roller who seems to be rejuvenating “American Idol,” Steven Tyler. Meanwhile, “The King’s Speech,” the movie that swept the Oscars, is focused on two middle-aged men sitting in a room talking to one another.

The success of the pic reminded the studios that the fastest growing segment of the film audience consists of seniors, not teens.

Nielsen data suggests that the average primetime TV viewer is 51 years old and watches more TV than his kids, who may be online. But if more than 60% of the audience for shows like “The Good Wife” are 55 years of age or older, why do networks still charge advertisers more for shows with younger viewers? The soldiers of development hell still complain when a show plays “old” but then they relaunch “Hawaii Five-O.” ABC covets its young look but is busily rebooting “Charlie’s Angels.”

Studies keep demonstrating the economic heft of the those aged 55-64, but advertisers nonetheless brag about their 18-49 ratings. The baby boomers spend almost $2 trillion a year on consumer goods, but the demi-gods of the demo business are reluctant to react.

Hence it’s little wonder that everyone is digging into our secrets and exploiting our personal data. The advertisers are clearly paranoid about their anachronistic data, thus making the rest of us paranoid about our privacy.

Up close, too personal

The companies involved in “data mining” are ubiquitous, but are they accurate?

Joel Stein, who writes for Time magazine, used stealth techniques to check out reports on his spending habits and lists a litany of errors:

Google Ad Preferences says Stein has little interest in books, Intellidyn claims he likes gardening, RapLeaf has him down as a medical professional and Alliance claims he ran up a tab for “intimate apparel,” which Stein denies. In view of the “creep factor” in data mining, Stein favors a bill about to be introduced by Sen. John Kerry that would allow consumers to inspect these reports and also make it much easier to opt out of the system.

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