In a new book, Adcreep: The case against modern marketing, Mark Bartholomew, Professor of Law, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York, argues that the creation of a world where advertising can be expected anywhere and anytime is transforming not only purchasing decisions but also personal relationships and people's sense of self.
For some time, public space, including parks and schools, has been invaded by brands as public bodies look for new ways to fund their requirements. But, says Bartholomew, "it's not just public space that is filling up with brand shout-outs".
Writing for Fast Company, he reported that in the course of research for his book "I discovered that a host of once ad-free environments – from the living room to our friendships – are now becoming sites for ads or surveillance technologies designed to make them more effective".
From smart technologies "embedded with what could be described as 'spying' capabilities", through the vast quantities of data accumulated by the likes of Google and Facebook, advertisers know more about us than ever before.
"Even our brains have become fair game for advertising annexation," Bartholomew notes, with companies spending millions on neuroscience to better capture the desires people won't or can't articulate.
"There are significant costs to opening up our lives to advertisers," Bartholomew states. "One is a loss of consumer agency."
By which he means that the use of brain scans to design more effective commercials "strips audiences of their ability to consciously shape the advertising content they see and hear".
He also worries about the implications for civic and personal values, as commercial messages invade school spaces and as people wonder if their micro-influencer online friend "is really a corporate shill".
And, he adds, "as commercial spying becomes routine, norms change to permit snooping in other parts of our life".
Bartholomew looks at previous US experience with advertising and new technologies and concludes that "the historical record shows strong precedent for using the law to keep some areas of life off-limits from commercial entreaties".
It is, he says, all too easy for a normalization process to occur once advertising enters a new territory. "Instead of defaults, the law needs to create hard and fast rules preventing the entry of advertising and corporate spying into these spaces."
Data sourced from Fast Company; additional content by WARC staff