March 25, 2019

The Commodification of Absolutely Everything

““Imagine this,” says an advertising consultant named Barry Lowenthal. “I’m a smart toaster, and I’m collecting data on how many times the toaster is used.”

I’ve just asked Lowenthal what he, as an advertiser, would be able to do with data transmitted from an internet-connected appliance, and I happened to mention a toaster. He thought through the possibility of an appliance that can detect what it’s being asked to brown: “If I’m toasting rye bread, a bagel company might be interested in knowing that, because they can re-target that household with bagel advertising because they already know it’s a household that eats bread, toasts bread, is open to carbs. Maybe they would also be open to bagels. And then they can probably cross that with credit-card data and know that this is a household that hasn’t bought bagels in the last year. I mean, it’s going to be amazing, from a targeting perspective.”

The thought experiment I put to Lowenthal—the CEO of The Media Kitchen, an advertising consulting firm—wasn’t some far-off hypothetical. Over the past several years, the American home has seen a proliferation of “smart,” or internet-connected, devices and appliances. There are, of course, smart speakers (which roughly a quarter of American homes have) and smart thermostats, as well as smart thermometers, smart mattress covers, smart coffee makers, smart doorbells, and even, yes, smart toasters. After Amazon recently announced the release of a slew of products compatible with its Alexa voice assistant, including a smart microwave and a smart wall clock, an executive for the company said he could imagine “a future with thousands of devices like this.””

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