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Is Walmart Watching You?



Here in Humboldt County, many people are worried that Walmart has acquired a lease to open a store in the Bayshore Mall, though we have heard no official acknowledgement of that.

I'm more worried about some other Walmart acquisitions. In September it acquired OneRiot, which is a company that sends customized and targeted ads to people via social networking. Last year it bought a movie distribution company called Vudu which owns rights to thousands of movies and embeds technology in new televisions that allows you to download those movies without a cable or Internet hookup. And according to technology news site CNET, Walmart is about to adopt a technology called UltraViolet -- which will allow people web access to movies they buy at a Walmart store.

Here's why these acquisitions bother me. Until 2007, I went to the same hair cutter for years. Then I watched The Bourne Ultimatum and saw how effortlessly Julia Stiles cut her own hair. She looked great! That prompted me to try it myself. Now, I knew I had watched a fictional character in a carefully choreographed movie scene. It didn't matter. Watching Julia Stiles do it so beautifully prompted me to copy her. I still cut my own hair. While watching TV last night I got caught up in an ad for the Sharper Image Superwave oven and had to fight the urge to order it on the spot. It cooks perfect steaks in 12 minutes and cleans itself!

We know that what we watch affects what we buy. But more than that, what we watch often affects what we do. And never before has every purchase we make, every image we view, and every song we listen to been so tabulated and aggregated and analyzed. When we watch movies on television we ignore the disclaimer at the beginning that says the movie was edited for content and to fit the screen. The next logical step is that it could be edited for content to fit your particular screen. What we buy may affect what we watch.

When I lived in San Francisco, we'd rent movies from an alternative video store. But we would forget what movies we'd already rented. Art movie houses offer great collections of cheesy sci-fi movies from the '50s, and all those space monster movies look the same. After the third time renting The Brain From Planet Arous I worried what someone would think if he looked at my rental history. Nowadays I watch movies via DirecTV. It's ridiculous to worry that some worker at DirecTV peeks at my viewing habits. It's a computer that does that.

In September, DirecTV signed a deal with a company called Miso, which syncs digital devices like the iPad with TV sets. With Miso, when people watch movies or television shows, their iPads shoot them related stuff -- information about the soundtrack, the clothes the characters are wearing, the cars they drive.

The movies I download onto my DVR or that my dad Netflixes are just a tiny part of the media tracked by computers. About the only untracked media you consume is the newspaper you are now reading, and only if you picked the paper up at the market. If you read it online, you're not the only one who knows.

Amazon knows every book I buy on my Kindle or iPad2 and every time I highlight a sentence in one of those books. Back in the late '70s I read Lord of the Rings about five times. Maybe more. How valuable might that information have been to businesses that wanted to sell me clothes or other books or movies or get me to watch their TV shows? What if some company aggregated all my teen reading and viewing and listening patterns -- reads Tolkien and Agatha Christie, watches Burt Reynolds movies and the Mary Tyler Moore show, listens to Pat Benatar -- to find the 530,212 other kids who had exactly the same preferences? Maybe it would label us Group A173. What might it do with that info?

If Group A173 were large enough, it might create media tailored just to us. A fantasy movie starring Burt Reynolds and Mary Tyler Moore-type characters who are kung fu masters, all set to New Wave music. Or maybe a video game. Ridiculous right? But you get the idea. How addictive might that have been to an insecure, bored teen? I'd have watched or played it a zillion times. It would have been my media meth.

When you watch Giants games you see ads on the billboards that the people at the stadium don't see. The TV network superimposes those images. Now imagine three years from now you download X-Men the Final Last Ultimate Stand, which Walmart distributes through Vudu. This is what you see: Wolverine talks to Storm and Rogue around a kitchen table. They eat Special K and drink Organic Orange Juice. Rogue puts down a copy of the posthumous Stieg Larson book she's been reading.

Someone else watching the same movie sees a different scene. Instead of a cereal box it is a box of Oreos and a bottle of Coke. The book Rogue puts down is book by popular Christian novelist Laura Frantz. Or let's say you watch a car chase in the movie. The cars zip through San Francisco. Over in your neighbor's house the cars zip through Dallas. It's all computer graphics. They can paint anything onto that blue screen. Maybe the chase is set against the Black Eyed Peas. Over at the neighbors? It's Rascal Flatts. Again ridiculous right?  But every time we consume media we generate valuable data and no one regulates the use of that data.

Last month I obsessed about the power of Google to bury information from us by tinkering with search engines. But what if the analytics got so good at predicting our tastes and curiosities that the search box became unnecessary? We only search for what we want and don't have. If companies could anticipate those desires, we wouldn't have to search. Miso Chief Executive Somrat Niyogi told the LA Times that he wants to be able to get information about characters and actors on a show while he watches it, rather than having to search on the Web for it later.

How convenient! To cut my hair I went to Target and bought a pair of barber's shears. If that were now? Julia Stiles cuts her hair. As I watch the movie, I get an ad on my Facebook page or in my email for a pair of salon scissors. With one-click purchasing they are mine, and since the click is tied to my GPS, there's no need to plug in my address. I don't have to go to Target or Walmart -- Walmart sends the razor-sharp shears to my doorstep. It's enough to make me lose my hair.

Marcy Burstiner is an associate professor of journalism and mass communication at Humboldt State University. You can reach her by email, but in a few years she's pretty sure you will be able to sync your brain directly with hers.


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