orwell“Big Brother” was a fictional character in George Orwell’s 1949 dystopian novel 1984.  But “Big Brother” has morphed into a fictional character increasingly used by marketers to separate you from your hard-earned money.    They portray him as the epitome of authoritarian government watching every move of every citizen.   They offer you information or devices that will help protect you from this dreaded authority.   However — and here’s where it gets interesting — there really is a “big brother” that has crept into the lives of most Americans and he isn’t the government.   It turns out that he is many of the same marketers who are warning you about “Big Brother”.   They are him….or vice versa.    Confused?  You should be.   That’s part of their objective.

But really, what they are doing is preying upon your fears.   These include your fear of being out of control, your fear of unaccountability, your fear of not being a valued member of society as well as a sense of paranoia that often accompanies aging.  By tapping into those fears, some marketers believe they can sell you more effectively than if they tried to appeal to your rationality or desire for prudent investment advice.   So when you see “Big Brother” mentioned in an ad,  this is a signal that the advertisement is designed to exploit your fears.

So, who is Big Brother and why should you fear him?    Web sites like “Money Morning”,  “Money Week”, “The Sovereign Investor”, “Sovereign Society”, “Patriot Survival Plan” (0r any other website that has the words “privacy” or “patriot”)  are all pitching investment or information allegedly to protect you from something that government has done, wants to do, is conspiring to do or will do over your most strenuous objections.    Like any Big Lie, there’s always a small element of truth in these marketing pitches.   For one, it is true that the U.S. Government has been engaging in some controversial surveillance and data mining.   Well before Edward Snowden’s head-shaking revelations,  insiders were very aware of some of the overreaching done by government authorities like the National Security Counsel and Homeland Security.   Some (including this blogger) have written extensively about these threats.   But these activities are largely subtle intrusions into citizens’ lives that bear little resemblance to these marketers’ exaggerated claims.

Then there is another “Big Brother” about whom you should be aware.    His face resembles that of Big Data companies who are collecting and mining your personal information.   There are a slew of real and potential abuses by these largely unregulated companies who collect personal data and use it in ways that you’d never imagine….or even permit they had asked for your permission.   But they don’t and will not.    Collecting data about customers is virtually as old as marketing itself, but the trillions of data points now available online make it a sophisticated piece of weaponry.  Marketers can map a consumer’s journey across the web and potentially even augment their findings with Facebook data collected by apps that will tell people the minutest details about their likes, dreams, interests and activities.  Advertisers can enlist the services of a startup such as Tapad, which can follow users onto their mobile devices and tablets. Traditional data brokers sell offline data culled from public records and survey results to marketers, who then can overlay it with their purchase data and the data they’ve already mined online as well as with public records and private aggregated data from Big Data companies.  Because they are not regulated, little is known about this shadowy online industry.

This much is known:  the impacts of this industry are far-reaching and sometimes shocking.   The New York Times wrote a widely circulated story about an angry father storming into his local Target after his teenage daughter received coupons for maternity items. The retailer’s data-crunchers had tried to discern  which of its customers were pregnant so that it could more effectively market pregnancy-products.  The company used data that came from shoppers’ purchase histories, not from online snooping and inadvertently exposed the fact that the teenager was pregnant.  This is just one of many such examples. Large retailers, Google, Facebook and other online providers are joined by marketing data behemoths Acxiom and Experian that collect and sell data.   Privacy advocates say that this  industry could have dangerous consequences — revealing the location of domestic-violence victims, for example.   Recently, the Federal Trade Commission called on Congress to pass legislation that would give consumers access to their data with brokerages, but no one expects the Republican-controlled Congress to act.

Also qualifying for “Big Brother” status are those online marketers who are warning about “Big Brother”.   When you click on their ads or emails hoping to get more information, you are pulled into marketing machine that tries to first get your email address and then your personal information and, finally, your money.    Even if they don’t get your money,  just by getting your email address, they can now make money by selling that data to other companies who also want to prey upon your fears and concerns.  You’ll find yourself getting more and more warnings, alerts and dire predictions from an entire cottage industry of doomsaying marketers…..most of them selling dubious investments or information that allegedly protects you from “Big Brother”.

So when “Big Brother” comes knocking at your email folder,  we warn you to keep your wallet hidden and your fingers away from the keyboard…..other than to press the “delete” key.