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The Pied Piper of Briefcases and Washing Machines

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By Andrew Biggs

It was a dark and stormy night.

I’d been beating away for a couple of hours — on my Macbook — when I felt the need for a break. So I casually flicked on Facebook.

Scrolling down my Timeline, catching joyous glimpses of the wildly interesting lives of Facebook Friends living life to the fullest (as opposed to me, still working at 9.30 pm on his own), I happened to notice an ad for a leather belted briefcase.

It was a briefcase in sienna brown with good stitching and faux straps. That is, it looked like they were buckled straps but in reality those straps hid button snaps, which meant there was no need to open and close the belt straps. I liked that. My more pretentious friends would sniff at that but it was functional and reeked of hipster chic.

I clicked on the ad.

I spent five minutes exploring the ins and outs of this leather bag. My current briefcase, which I’ve had for two years, has served me well but like its owner it is starting to fray around the edges and sag in undesirable places.

This new one would be an ideal replacement. And it was a bargain, the website alleged, at 8,900 baht. I am not one to shy away from impulse buying — I have a bookshelf and wardrobe as evidence — but on that particular dark and stormy night the voice of reason stepped in.

Reminding myself of my upcoming house renovations, for which the painters were demanding I surrender an arm and a leg, I clicked on the little red button at the top of the screen. Bang. It was gone. One minute later I was back at work, and that is where the story should end.

This incident took place a week ago.

It was probably by Friday or Saturday that I started to notice something curious. More and more frequently, I was being bombarded by advertisements for leather briefcases.

They would pop up in google ads. The original one I saw on Facebook? It was now the single most common ad that wedged itself between all those joyous posts from my wildly interesting Facebook friends living life to the fullest.

But here’s the weird part; I started to feel as though leather suitcases were stalking me. I do not have a history of paranoid behavior – not while sober, anyway – but was it a mere coincidence that a leather briefcase ad popped up on CNN?

Upon checking out the Billboard website this week, there, at the very top of the page, was an ad for — a leather wallet! Good lord! The leather briefcase is extending its tentacles to include its closest relatives!

That made me uneasy. It was as if the internet, born of academics wanting to exchange knowledge between universities, was now a living breathing identity with the express purpose of sucking me into a vortex. It was a black hole drawing me round and round, down, down towards its very core, in which an 8,900 baht leather hipster briefcase was situated.

Have you ever cleared out your junk folder in Gmail? I have. Thanks to Google filters I am spared daily emails from fleeing Nigerian princes and ads for penis enlargement pills. Are these spam mails hitting my inbox purely by accident?

Or is something more sinister going on? Does the internet know I am going through difficult financial times owing to greedy painters, and would just love a wealthy Nigerian prince to park his millions in my bank account? As for the latter ads, we’ll not cross that bridge in the interests of Bangkok Post being a family newspaper.

And how perverse is Google. It blocks such spam, yet allows spam of an altogether different form to bombard me via ads. Google’s motto is Don’t Be Evil, except for leather briefcase companies wanting to pay Google lots of money.

And of course the biggest worry of all: I clicked on that ad in the privacy of my office, all alone, on a dark and stormy night, remember? Now the whole internet seems to know I’m just dying to buy a leather briefcase.

My curiosity got the better of me. I decided to face the fear … and perform a little experiment.

Yesterday I went online. I took a deep breath and summoned up as much Dutch courage as I could muster. In a brazen moment, which required three glasses of Asahi with vodka chasers, I typed the following into Google:

I want to buy a washing machine.

I don’t need a washing machine. I just wanted to see what would transpire.

What came up was your expected list of washing machine dealers. There were ads as well as regular websites. Powerbuy was at the very top.

Just to make sure the message was understood, I went one step further:

Where can I buy a washing machine in Thailand?

Again, Powerbuy was the first to be listed. So I clicked on Powerbuy. I was mildly interested; who would have thought there are 167 different washing machines to choose from? My favorite speaker company, Bosch, even makes one, though for 29,900 Baht I closed that window quicker than you could say Guess Whose Mum’s Got A Whirlpool. I ended up at Sharp’s bottom-end machine at 4,990 baht.

Then I went to Facebook and typed in the same thing. Then I hashtagged #Iwanttobuyawashingmachine on Twitter.

I felt alive, dear reader. Face the monster! I felt like Max van Sydow in The Exorcist. Adrenaline pulsed through my veins; not exactly the usual reaction on my fourth Asahi and chaser.

Then I sat back and waited.

Sure enough, the creeping terror began.

Ads for leather briefcases gave way to ads for washing machines.

On Facebook, I saw nothing but Powerbuy ads — and incredibly, as you can see in the accompanying picture, the ad featured that overpriced Bosch machine!

Interestingly the wallet ad is still at Billboard, but I suspect it is only a matter of time before that, too, is swallowed up by the overpowering presence of washing machines.

A month or so ago, when the Cambridge Analytica scandal erupted, I wondered if any company had “scraped my details” off Facebook. My conclusion was I was probably not in any particularly desirous demographic to warrant any interest.

This week I discovered differently. It was good to be reminded that anywhere I travel on the net, I am being followed, even if it is only by marketing company bots. We have crossed the line from the internet of things, to the internet of things for sale.

And what a force it is; when used wrongly, at best it persuades me to buy things I hardly want. At worst it can sway vast numbers of gun-toting Americans to vote for a misogynist conman for president.

And how long will this washing machine barrage last? Will I be harangued by Powerbuy for eternity?

As I write this, the war is still relentless. That was my Songkran, dear reader. Five days of greedy painters, leather suitcases, washing machines — and a sinister dark force that watches everything we click on in our travels around the internet. It makes 1984 look utopian.




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