Onus on Marketers When It Comes to Privacy Issues

An Ad Age Editorial

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Whether privacy groups want to admit it or not, consumers don't seem to care much about online-privacy issues. But whether marketers like it or not, a Democratic Congress is casting its eye on the issue all the same.

There was a time when we felt a little sorry for those groups fighting for consumer privacy. In order to get Congress to act to protect consumers' privacy, they needed to get more consumers to care. But short of the sort of large-scale data disaster that groups routinely try to prevent, consumers couldn't quite be bothered.

Web tracking and targeting -- and the privacy concerns they raise -- are complex issues. But complexity isn't the main cause for consumer apathy. The fact of the matter is consumers have been choosing convenience over strict privacy controls.

The same tools that horrify privacy advocates make life easier for consumers. Who wants to type in a URL every time he surfs the web? Who wants to see the same pop-up ad every time she returns to her favorite site? And, knowing full well there will be advertising anyway, who wouldn't rather see ads that might possibly have something to do with things that interest him?

That said, the times they are a changing. A few powerful members of Congress are making noises about the privacy issue. And privacy advocates have effectively linked identity theft, phishing, and other ills to behavioral targeting.

Marketing groups have taken notice. The heads of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, the Direct Marketing Association, the Assocation of National Advertisers and the Interactive Advertising Bureau are making the rounds to make the case that legislation isn't needed. We tend to agree. And we hope the groups make their case in plain English, rather than in the tone-deaf jargon the tech crowd has so far used to defend targeting and tracking.

But even absent legislation, the onus is on marketers and agencies to exercise extreme restraint when it comes to using tracking and targeting tools. It also means that all parties have to be extremely careful with the data they collect.

Ultimately, abuse of data is bad for business. And marketers can be sure that if one of those large-scale disasters does happen, consumers will notice -- and then demand Congress to take action.

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