|Katherine Albrecht's book 'Spychips' hits Amazon's top 10 list within one week of its release.
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Spychips: How Major Corporations and Government Plan to Track Your Every Move with RFID, published Sept. 27, hit the top 10 on Amazon.com’s non-fiction best-seller list and No. 1 on its current-events list during its first week of publication, said the book's author, Katherine Albrecht.
The book was already is in its third printing, she said, after demand swamped initial projections despite relatively modest pre-publication publicity, besides Ms. Albrecht tapping her own e-mail list of supporters of her group, Caspian, or Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering.
Futuristic scenarios of RFID use in marketing once included targeting TV commercials to consumers based on what they buy or when they take the last bottle of Coca-Cola from the fridge, the book says, outlining a 2000 “house of the future” established by Procter & Gamble Co. and MIT in Cambridge, England.
More realistically, perhaps, backers of the soon-to-launch Apollo media tracking project from Arbitron and VNU have discussed using RFID in magazine pages to tackle hard-to-track ad exposure for the medium among its opt-in panelists.
Ms. Albrecht and her co-author and fellow Caspina organizer, Liz McIntyre, are trying to thwart such developments, contending they’ll ultimately lead to unwanted snooping on consumers not only by marketers but also by government and high-tech voyeurs and stalkers.
P&G singled out
Ms. Albrecht singles out P&G as the primary driver behind global RFID development, and said its recent acquisition of Gillette Co., whose products Caspian boycotts over its retail RFID testing practices, only makes it a bigger mover for the technology.
Despite assurances that it has no current plans to track consumer behavior with RFID, P&G filed for a 2001 patent titled “Systems and Methods for Tracking Consumers in a Store Environment,” the book says.
Milan Turk Jr., director-global customer business development for P&G, said that while he was not aware of the patent, that “privacy is something we take very seriously.”
First phase: Pallets and cases
Any consumer research or marketing applications of the technology, he said, remain in the distant future, as P&G and others currently are focused on making the technology work on pallets and cases at Wal-Mart Stores and other retailers. The earliest consumer-facing applications, he said, are likely to be aimed at ensuring availability of products on promotion.
But Ms. Albrecht finds industry safeguards weak in practice. Caspian plans a protest at Wal-Mart Stores in Dallas this week over what she sees as insufficient point-of-purchase notification on such products as Hewlett-Packard printers being sold with RFID chips in their packages.
A Wal-Mart spokeswoman said the packages are labeled as having the chips, as promised. “RFID will not be used to track consumers,” she said, or to collect data about consumers or their purchases.
The cost of chips still prohibits widespread use on most products, though manufacturers recently have driven costs as low as under 7 cents a chip. As a practical matter, manufacturers and retailers are still struggling to reliably apply and read the chips, though Wal-Mart says it will expand its current program using RFID on pallets and cases to 500 stores by the end of the month and to its top 300 suppliers by early next year.
'Mark of the Beast'
Meanwhile, Ms. Albrecht, a libertarian Harvard doctoral student, also is preparing to reveal another of her facets -- Christian activist. A second edition of her book due in January links RFID to the “mark of the beast” in the Book of Revelations.
That line of reasoning may make some of her corporate foes snicker privately, but has gotten a warm reception from some fellow privacy advocates hoping to expand their reach.
For P&G, it could also mean another run-in with conservative Christians. The company was the target for decades of unfounded rumors linking its now-discarded corporate logo to Satan worship and recently ended a boycott by the American Family Association in April by saying it had stopped advertising on such shows as NBC’s Will and Grace.