Marketers Walk Fine Line as They Get Closer to Solving One of Advertising's Great Mysteries

Another Perspective in the Ongoing Privacy Debate

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Rance Crain
Rance Crain

John Wanamaker, the Philadelphia merchant, famously said, "I know half my advertising is wasted, I just don't know what half." Congratulations to John, by the way, for getting involved in his store's advertising programs; most CEOs don't bother. And now with budgets increasingly going to digital, they really won't bother because they'll be too embarrassed to admit they don't understand how digital can build brands -- or if it's even important anymore. What's important is to be at the right place at the right time with the right merchant.

Old John Wanamaker, if not today's CEOs, would be thrilled that we're fast closing the wasted advertising gap by allowing consumers to pre-select for themselves just what they're looking for. There's just one little problem: knowing too much about consumer-buying proclivities could be considered an invasion of privacy, even though marketers can give consumers just what they want.

Direct-marketing legend Lester Wunderman understands better than most how far we've come -- and how tantalizingly close we are to eliminating wasted spending. To know when consumers are ready to part with their money is the big unknown, Lester told me.

"To hit the target at the right moment and the when -- the right moment is the when, and it's the one thing we don't know. The when is the big mystery. Frequency doesn't solve the when. Frequency is 'I don't know when so I'm just going to keep after you until the when is ready.'"

After coming so far, we might never figure out the when. As Bob Garfield asked: "How hysterical would it be for online advertising to be legislated into oblivion?

"It's hardly an insane scenario, as pressure builds on the FTC and Congress to safeguard consumer privacy from behavioral targeting and other online wizardry."

The crackdown on behavioral targeting comes at an especially inopportune time, given the fact that we need consumers to feel free and comfortable spending their money again.

They feel free posting all kinds of personal stuff on Facebook, so why is it considered creepy for marketers to know what products they like to buy?

Here's how FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz described the dilemma: "Imagine that you were walking through a shopping mall, and there was someone who was walking behind you and taking notes on everywhere you went and sending it off to every shop or anyone who was interested for a small fee. That would creep you out; that would be very disturbing, I think, for most people," he told Bob.

Not for me, or I would wager, the millions of people who share their every waking hour with like-minded people on the various social media. Heck, I'd like to have a personal shopper following me around to make sure I didn't forget anything.

Lester Wunderman made an important distinction between what kind of information is acceptable to use for marketing purposes and what kind isn't. Is it personal, or is it private?

"If I address you by name, and I know that you own a house and own a car, and the make and model and year of that automobile, that's not private. It may be personal, but it's nothing you're hiding.

"But if I begin to get into your debt, get into your family income, get into your mortgage problems if you have any, I think we are on the verge of invading privacy."

So it's personal but not private for marketers to know that you like Chanel purses or Jimmy Choo shoes and send you e-mails about new models and sales and even other shoes and purses from other fashion houses.

Sure, you could opt out for such updates from the companies involved. Or they could explain how they knew from your previous buying patterns that you would most likely be interested in similar products, but please don't feel pressure to act on any of the information that suddenly pops up and please forgive us for intruding.

Lester Wunderman , in his interview with me, did say that competition is getting fierce to figure out how to get to the "when" moment that would render John Wanamaker's advertising totally unwasted. But if marketers move from using personal to private data, in their quest for advertising's holy grail, it would block progress for years to come.

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