Brainwashing your wife to want sex? Here is adtech at its worst

The Promotion Fix is a​n ​exclusive biweekly column for The Drum from Samuel Scott, a global keynote marketing speaker who is a former journalist, newspaper editor, and director of marketing and communications in the high-tech industry. Follow him @samueljscott.

If you need to use targeted adtech to convince your wife to want sex, you are a wanker. In both senses of the word.

This is 2018, so we all know today how marketers and tech companies use online tracking to deliver direct response and sell personal data. For better or worse, most consumers seem to accept it. But there is a new – alleged – platform that embodies the worst of where surveillance marketing can lead.

The Spinner purports to let individuals influence the behaviour of others through tracking that displays tailored news articles on websites that the targets visit. The primary example that the company highlights is that husbands can subliminally convince their wives to initiate sex more often.

Based on the company’s website, the basic idea is that a husband pays $29 and then receives a shortened URL with a tracking code that is linked to a cookie. He then sends the URL in a text message to his wife (with, presumably, some cover story).

When the wife clicks on the link, a cookie is downloaded to the her phone. Then, whenever the wife browses news websites, she will see articles supplied by The Spinner such as “3 Reasons Why You Should Initiate Sex With Your Husband.”

A "news report" in a video on the company’s homepage summarises the process with this graphic.

The reaction to The Spinner

Maya Kosoff, a tech writer for Vanity Fair and The Hive, tweeted on 9 July that an "Elliott" – see below – pitched her on the company. She wrote: “This is by far the creepiest and worst pitch I've ever gotten. What about the stories I write or who I am as a human being would make you think I wanna write about this?”

“We should all be thanking the Valley Bros that made The Spinner – it might just be what it takes for folks to sit up and take note of (a) how this crap works (b) what it is designed to do (c) how fucked up it all is,” Aral Balkan, a self-described cyborg rights activist, added. “The Spinner is surveillance capitalism in its purest… The Spinner is surveillance capitalism’s Martin Shkreli moment.”

Doc Searls, an adtech critic and the editor of Linux Journal, condemned the idea on Twitter. So did David Carroll, the American media professor who helped to break the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal this year in the UK. The Spinner, he wrote, is “essentially using a spearfishing attack on friends and loved ones to entrap them in a microtargeting/retargeting peer-to-peer digital psyop”.

The Sun in the UK, not surprisingly, published a sensationalist article last week about the platform without bothering to verify anything.

Let’s look at the marketing

The Spinner itself is evil – that goes without saying. If any husband would use the platform on his wife, I am sure she would kick his ass to the curb and force him to listen to Nickelback albums on repeat until his head explodes.

I do not even understand how a cookie could control which articles appear on major, third-party news outlets. But this is a marketing column, so let’s have a look at the communications.

There is a website that looks like it was created by a child in junior high school and includes a home page stock photo of a woman, for some reason, brushing her teeth. There is a call to action that would interest only a lecher such as Donald Trump: “Launch your ‘initiate sex’ campaign today!” The “user reviews” are anonymous and so generic that they must be fake.

The main advertisement is a video consisting of a fake news anchor and a fake reporter saying a fake script. There is this unsupported statistic: “The global number of married men who want their wife to increase the number of initiated sexual advances towards them is estimated to be around 1 billion.”

What my investigation found

This might not be a surprise, but The Spinner may not be entirely on the up and up. I did some digging.

I emailed the address listed on the website. Someone named “Elliot Shefler” replied and said he was a co-founder and the spokesperson. I asked if he could create a dummy account so I could see how the whole thing works for a column for The Drum.

His curt reply? “You can afford $29 for this story.” (If any marketing professors want to show students how not to do media relations, this story is a good example.)

Later, Shefler sent me this text, which he said was what people receive after their paid registration.

I said that I still needed to verify everything myself and again asked if he could create an account. His reply? He simply wrote “ok good luck” and added the paid sign-up link. I said that I needed to get some basic information for my research, so I asked for the names, backgrounds, and work histories of the co-founders. I received no response.

Several days later, Elliot sent me this curt message: “So did you write about it?” Again, I said that I needed to verify more information. His reply: “This is the info i can give you at this point. Sorry.”

(The first two rules of media relations: any communication with a journalist is on the record unless there is mutual agreement beforehand. And always know the reporters with whom you are speaking. I am obviously the complete opposite of an adtech cheerleader.)

All I know is that Elliot Sheffler's emails were not written in native English, his email headers were in Hebrew and Google found nothing specific on anyone with that name.

The domain is anonymously registered with Amazon Web Services – which, to be fair, is not that uncommon. But the London address listed on the website is a French bakery. Mon Dieu.

To quote the immortal words of Elaine Benes, I think this company might be "fake, fake, fake, fake".

As someone who is half-Israeli, lives in Tel Aviv, and speaks Hebrew, I take personal offense to this sketchy operation. It gives credence to the negative stereotypes of Israelis. And even if it is not a scam, The Spinner would still be the worst tech product with the worst marketing in the history of humanity. And I saw Juicero.

The real significance

Of course, I could be wrong. Perhaps my cynical, journalistic spidey sense is awry when it says this is probably a scam to lead humanity into what would be truly the darkest timeline. Maybe it is nothing like this purported scam discovered by Lukas Stefanko, a malware researcher at security company ESET.

The Spinner could be a new startup that is seeking so-called “traction” by any means necessary. It could be yet another way to collect and sell personal data. It could be a meta-joke on the adtech industry. As a YouTube commenter on the aforementioned video said, it could even be guerilla marketing for an upcoming season of Black Mirror.

Still, my real concern is not that this alleged company exists. My issue is with how people in the marketing world believe it without a second thought. It reveals the ever-decreasing expectations that marketers have for adtech specifically and the high-tech startup world in general.

If The Spinner were spun in 1998, people would not believe that such technology could be possible and would be aghast at the immorality. But after 20 years of providing personal data in exchange for free services, people today shrug their shoulders at the collection and use of such information.

Today, we just accept that invasive platforms will exist in a world that is increasingly dominated by technology that erodes privacy and targets individuals – in marketing as well as every other part of our daily lives. We just accept that tech companies will do bad things from time to time and shrug our shoulders yet again.

We are only beginning to understand

In response to such occurrences, two American artists whose material looks at the intersection of society and technology, Tega Brain and Sam Lavigne, have created New Organs to study how Internet companies track and monitor people online and offline. (The independent project is commissioned by Mozilla.)

As we are seeing, our over-reliance on technology comes with risks. See these two recent reports from Positive Technologies: researchers obtained full control of the infrastructure of every single corporate network that they tested as well as found that every single Internet platform has at least one security vulnerability.

Just as some unscrupulous businesses accept that their products will result in occasional personal injuries and lawsuits as costs of doing business, so has the world accepted the negative consequences of technology as costs of having high-tech platforms. We are falling down the slippery slope of getting used to more and more invasions of our privacy.

Nothing is safe. But by all means, let’s keep insisting that we should be digital-first in our marketing. Adtech is becoming not only a technology to sell products and services but also a Pandora’s Box that may harm the world irreparably.

Thankfully, both the marketing industry and the world in general are beginning to wake up. Brazil may soon enact its own version of the EU’s GDPR regulation. And as I discussed in a keynote address at the Synergy Digital Summit in Moscow in May, the adtech industry as a whole operates on a set of marketing assumptions that are actually entirely false.

What real relationships need

Thankfully, there is no need to resort to the totalitarian vulgarity of adtech to talk with one’s partner.

Any healthy relationship should have real, constant communication. If you need to use some passive-aggressive advertising platform to discuss your needs, you have bigger problems than a lack of sex. (In response to a query for this column, Rachel Stomel, a women’s rights activist here in Israel, tweeted a meme saying that “it's impossible to love someone and control them at the same time.”)

And if such technology is the only way that you can sell your product, you have bigger problems than a lack of conversions. You wanker.

The Promotion Fix is an exclusive biweekly column for The Drum contributed by global marketing and technology keynote speaker Samuel Scott, a former journalist, consultant and director of marketing in the high-tech industry. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Scott is based out of Tel Aviv, Israel.

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