Wait Till Somebody Exposes the Spying on Individuals That We Marketers Do

What Happens When Consumers Figure Out We're Watching Them?

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There's probably more to come from Edward Snowden's unfolding expose of U.S. government spying, but polls suggest that Americans are already resigned to trade some privacy in exchange for identifying terrorists. It's a bureaucracy doing it, after all, so it's probably done poorly, and it's not as if the government doesn't already scrutinize our tax records, register every piece of snail mail we post and, in some states, make us jump through extraordinary hoops to do things like vote and exercise rights otherwise guaranteed by the Constitution.

But what happens if consumers figure out how regularly, deeply and expertly we marketers track their behaviors, and in doing so blur the line between between convenience and manipulation?

Our snooping puts the National Security Agency to shame. From the level of the internet service provider, through to social-media platforms and websites, and including apps, ads and clickable content (like videos), we collect a vast amount of information on consumers' online behavior (and their geophysical location), then use it to tee-up search results, info and ads to millions of people millions of times every day … ideally to each one of them uniquely so. We don't do it to keep anybody safe, however. We do it to sell stuff. It's the mercenary make-money benefit we gain through all of that non-commercial friending and conversing we do with consumers.

We call it "improving user experience," and not only are entire business monetization plans based on it (like Facebook), it's the driver of our hopes for Big Data selling things to people who no longer want to be sold to. Yet the only time we talk about it is when we ask consumers to accept usage terms, and then only in the dense secret code of mouseprint that is to disclosure what James Joyce's "Ulysses" is to clarity. We tell them little, hope they'll understand even less, and then we have the audacity to claim that they're OK with it when we ask them.

Granted, Millennials seem somewhat lax with their personal info, but they tend to join other age groups in disapproval of data gathering and manipulation, at least when its explicit details are revealed to them. Yet companies are investing many millions in some serious fantasies of controlling their pathways to purchasing the stuff we make, to the level of automating our marketing so we don't necessarily have to sell so much as crunch their usage data and nudge them to buy things without them (or us) being consciously aware of it.

Our hope is that they'll stay unaware of the information they give away or, at worst, maintain a belief that it's worth doing so in exchange for ads and other content that's somewhat pre-qualified to be interesting to them. But there's a fine line between convenience and manipulation, and the foundational idea of "consumer choice" loses its meaning if that choice isn't truly free. If we didn't think that blurring that line was a potential bomb, why are we so shy about discussing it, and almost congenitally incapable of making sure that consumers understand the breadth and depth (and outcomes) of our snooping?

Just like the NSA's programs, it can't stay secret forever. Imagine if a commercially-savvy whistle-blower emerged with detailed proof of how user data were collected, shared and then exploited by a variety of businesses and, somehow, connected it back to illustrate the ways consumer choices are limited, while unfairly promoting purchases. What if The Yes Men, AdBusters, or some other, new culture-busting group chose to attack data tools with publicity stunts and videos that got peoples' attention? If libertarian-minded politicos get a greater voice in Washington next year, could there be regulations requiring more transparency and disclosure, and would the revelations freak out the folks who think they're OK with being watched?

Technology may already be bringing that day closer, with growing awareness of old standbys like Tor's anonymous browser and the "don't-track-me" settings in its mainstream competitors. I just downloaded something called DoNotTrackMe, which tells me all of the services scraping info about me when I visit web pages (it's shocking). In response to the NSA revelations, CyanogenMod is developing a feature to block personal data collection from android users. I'm convinced that kids are in garages right now coming up with killer apps to help consumers even better hide from the brands that claim to want to help them.

We marketers don't talk about this issue much, probably because it's so complicated and thorny. But it haunts our best hopes for the future. And, while people may let Snowden's tale end up a somewhat distant espionage adventure, the scarier story is what's done to every consumer in the name of efficient commerce. Without a far more creative and strategic approach to telling it, I fear others (or other events) will tell it for brands.

That story doesn't have a happy ending.

JONATHAN SALEM BASKIN is the author of "A Thousand Words: Why We Must Fight The Tyranny of Brief, Vague & Incomplete," and the president of Baskin Associates, a marketing consultancy. You can follow him on Twitter: @jonathansalem.
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