Are you in or out?

The classic advertising problem that all students learn in ‘advertising 101’ is as follows – the marketer knows that half of her advertising budget is wasted but doesn’t know which half.

We know that advertising works but we cant be precise in how we measure it. Television suffers from the ‘put the kettle on’ effect, i.e. the television happily broadcasts the ads but the watcher might be in the kitchen making coffee and not taking in the adverts. Billboards have to compete with busy roads for drivers attention. Newspaper adverts can be zoned out of the readers vision. All in all, its impossible to know who and how many people exactly are consuming the advert.

Then along came the Internet. With every online step we take we are leaving behind personal information about ourselves.  Should we hold advertisers to task over this? There’s a loaded question. Privacy advocates suggest a big ‘no’; marketing people cannot just help themselves to any information that comes around about Joe Soap. On the other hand, if Joe Soap uses free software should he not give something back to the web?

I use gmail. Every incoming email is accompanied by targeted ads. An email from my supervisor about my research brings ads for education courses and the like. An email from a North American friends telling me her garden is starting to bloom now that the snow is starting to melt brings ads for gardening products. Should I be worried?  Sometimes the ads are not so well targeted. An email telling me of an upcoming  ‘multiples intelligences’ seminar (which I can’t attend, incidentally, as it clashes with my teaching classes) brings an ad for testing impurities in honey!

Apparently, I should be worried. Phorm raised its head last year among a wave of privacy concerns. Now, it’s in the news again. A new set of online advertising guidelines from the IAB has just been released and has been endorsed by many of the big online web organisations (Google, Yahoo, AOL and Phorm themselves).

The essence is that users have to be informed that their information is being used to feed them precisely targeted adverts. They must be told exactly how the system works. And they must be informed that they have the option to opt out of this if they don’t want their information used in this way.

The last part is where the privacy experts are not happy. They suggest that the marketers should be proactive with consumers and allow consumers to actively opt-in if they want to be part of things. With the opt out option, all but the very savvy users will know what’s going on and most us us are unlikely to realise that our personal information is being used at all.

What’s the answer?

Should people abstain (!) from surfing the net if they don’t know where / how their information footprints they leave behind are going to be used? The answer – you may as well ask a fish to stop and check if the water it’s swimming in is clean – it’s just not going to happen.

Are the privacy advocates correct and marketers should approach Joe Soap with an opt-in form to sign his name to? How many people would likely say yes please, off you go and do what you like with my data?

Sometimes, there is no easy answer.


Posted on March 9, 2009, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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