Black Ops Advertising (Mara Einstein, 2016)

Blurring lines, ads go undercover
Not too long ago it seemed that the understanding was that there should be a bright line drawn between advertising and content. “We’ll be right back,” talk show hosts said, “right after these messages.” Television programs were divided into sections, each separated by a series of commercials, unless we paid for cable in order to have commercial-free viewing. Magazines ran articles and advertisements, on separate pages or separated by clear borders. Internet sites posted videos (content) and ran ads in sidebars. That has changed and will be changing even more in the future. Not only has the line between advertising and content been erased, it is becoming almost impossible to tell which is which. And to make matters worse, we are providing almost unlimited data about ourselves to advertisers in order to make their job of selling to us that much more efficient.

This is the message of Mara Einstein, former advertising agency executive and now professor of media studies at Queens College, City University of New York. And she has written Black Ops Advertising to let us in on it.

This is not, of course, new. It was pretty clear things were changing when companies like Nike and Abercrombie & Fitch not only convinced consumers to buy their products but to wear products that advertised the company. Or when we saw appeals to children to buy special meals at fast food restaurants that are actually advertisements for movies. Or when we spotted product placement in films, so that brands are clearly displayed in scenes as the plot unfolds.

Einstein says this is only the beginning. Two recent developments are native advertising (ads are placed in the content) and content marketing (ads that are made to look like news or entertainment). In both cases great expense and creativity is expended to make certain we are unaware of what is actually happening. She provides examples of each so we can learn to spot them.

Not only has the bright line between advertising and content been erased, Einstein says, we are also unaware of how the digital world allows marketers to manipulate us.

Click a button and we can read the New York Times or watch our favorite TV show or stream the latest movie. Submit a query to Google and a world of knowledge appears on the screen, albeit algorithmically delimited. Newspaper or magazine, TV or movie, fact, tidbit, or commentary, no matter how big or small, how significant or trivial: it’s all available at our fingertips, and it’s all absolutely free.

This is the perception we have been lulled into believing. It is time to wake up. There is no free lunch, free movie, news report, or factoid. We are paying and paying dearly.

We pay with our time and our attention—a scarce and valuable resource in the twenty-first century—and the coin of the realm in today’s “attention economy.” We pay by being forced to engage with what has become an unending stream of advertising blurred to be indistinguishable from legitimate news stories, leading to the utter skewing of our sense of reality. We pay by providing our personal data to marketers, who then use that data to sell us an increasing array of products “specifically targeted to us” by manipulating and whipsawing our emotions. We pay by turning our relationships into monetizable opportunities, making personal interactions into market transactions, and remaining in a constant state of buying or selling, albeit one that’s been prettied up to look like sharing and making “friends.” Exaggeration? I don’t think so. (p. 187-188)

Einstein has written a helpful book intended to help us see the digital world, advertising and media with greater clarity. My one caveat is that her rhetoric is too shrill at times, and the book is stronger at diagnosis than providing much of a solution. Still, this is the world we live in and participate in, so we should take notice.


Black Ops Advertising by Mara Einstein (New York, NY: OR Books; 2016) 206 pages + notes.