Watch John Oliver explain the dark side of data collection

On Sunday’s episode of “Last Week Tonight,” host John Oliver took viewers down the scary rabbit hole that is data collection. As marketers are well aware, consumer data is one of the most sought after commodities for businesses as it informs advertising that can be targeted to specific demographics. But Oliver explained that this data can reflect much more personal information than age or gender. It can also be transmitted in unregulated, irresponsible and dangerous ways.

The host started the segment by breaking down the role of data brokers, or entities that actually collect data, after which they share or sell it to brands and companies. Oliver then explained how third-party cookies track consumers across the web and why this could very quickly lead to privacy breaches. In one example, the host aired a local 2014 newscast in which the network was able to buy residents’ health information, including segments about people with cancer and pregnant women.

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“Honestly, I didn’t think there could be a worse thing to ask a woman you don’t know than ‘Are you pregnant?’ But ‘You’re pregnant, you want to know who I paid to find out?’ definitely got into the chat,” Oliver joked.

The episode ended with the presentation of an ad targeting experiment, in which Oliver and his team worked with data brokers to create a humorous demographic that could potentially match certain members of Congress (that’s that is, men, over the age of 45, who live within a five-mile radius of the United States Capitol and have searched the web for terms such as “divorce”, “hair loss” and midlife crisis). Next, the team targeted cheeky ads to this group, which included content about double voting, marriage help, and erotic Ted Cruz fan fiction. Watch the clip for yourself (the presentation starts at 9:40 p.m.) to see the, er, revealing results…

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