How Frenemies Documents and Anticipates Our Advertising Anxieties

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Think of an aspect of the media, and it’s almost certain that Ken Auletta has written something about it. His books have covered everything from conflicts, rivalries, and collapses in the world of network television to the ways in which news organizations grapple with business concerns to the way a certain technology company has become pervasive in nearly every aspect of everyday life. He also writes regularly on the subject for The New Yorker. The subtitle of his latest book, Frenemies, suggests the scope he’s grappling with here: The Epic Disruption of the Ad Business (and Everything Else).

Frenemies enters the world at a time not long after GDPR reminder emails flooded mailboxes and news reports and analysis have placed questions of sharing personal information and tracking users who may prefer anonymity at the forefront of many who use smartphones — which is to say, a whole lot of people. And while Auletta’s narrative begins with the world of advertising, he slowly reveals a larger and larger picture. This is a book that may consciously begin with allusions to “Mad Men” and the ways that technology, social media, and the nature of buying advertising have changed that industry, but it gradually becomes something more — and something more unnerving.

In the acknowledgements to Frenemies, Auletta notes that Facebook, rather than Google, is at the center of his book. (This he chalks up to having written a previous book on Google: “I wanted to mix it up,“ he writes.) And given that questions of Facebook and privacy have been showing up in news stories for much of the year — to say nothing of Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony to governmental bodies in the United States and Europe — this gives the book a sense of feeling like a prologue for certain hot-button issues and pressing questions about digital lives and privacy.

Sometimes, this takes a literal form: in the book’s later pages, Auletta deals with the way that marketing and advertising played a role in the 2016 Presidential election — including a brief acknowledgment of the role of Cambridge Analytica. At others, it resonates with ongoing concerns, as is the case when Auletta explores the debate over ad blockers being built into web browsers and mobile operating systems — and of advertising’s role in funding television networks, journalism, and other forms of programming that audiences seek. There’s also plenty of discussion of technological developments that are still in progress, from the internet of things to the way that online digital assistants can monitor and predict their users’ behavior.

One of the many things that Auletta carefully depicts here is the way that certain agendas can conflict: the idea of a digital assistant that reads one’s emails, anticipates purchases, and allows for advertisers to to market to specific needs might be a borderline-utopian vision for a technologist or marketer. For someone concerned about their privacy — or someone who prefers to carry out certain tasks outside of their digital presence — that can look a lot more like surveillance, a panopticon designed to sell you things.

There are other ominous notes that crop up throughout the book. Auletta paints a grand picture of the personalities, rivalries, and long histories of many leaders in the industry — but he also periodically hints that the business he’s writing about might radically transform quickly, devastating many of those who presently work in it. Early on, he writes about a number of executives who “know that new technologies like programmatic or computerized buying of advertising eliminates jobs.” That implicit warning hangs over the rest of the book: as much as technological advances can be thrilling to document, the consequences of those are likely to be the same as in so many other industries: a drop in the number of open jobs, qualified people losing work, and a sense of despondency.

Auletta’s book is frequently thrilling: the story he’s telling here is one that overlaps with advances in technology, corporate drama, and decades’ worth of history recounted with style. It’s the rare book that’s also become even more resonant since the events that it describes. It’s an impressive narrative feat to tell a compelling story that takes on discomfiting overtones once it’s done — but that’s precisely what Auletta has done here.