Editorial: Time to Lay It Out

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In a recurring nightmare, I'm walking through a nondescript office building with one of its executives.


"This is where we keep the list," she says.


"List of what?"


"Why, the list of everything."


"Everything?"


"Yes. Everything. Everything everyone has ever done. Everything they've ever bought. Every Web page they've ever looked at. All their thoughts, every financial transaction, their medical histories, the diseases and conditions they think they might get, all their pets' names, work histories, political leanings, reading habits, porn consumption. ... You name it, it's in here."


Then it hits me: "Ohmygod. The privacy whackos are right. I've been a marketing dupe for four years. (Stomach knotting very tightly) Think of those editorials. So many of them, all naively contending that the privacy movement is nothing but a hysteria-driven, thinly veiled attack on capitalism. And all along, marketers have been compiling dossiers on everyone. God, was I smug. After all the condescending, crappy things I've said, boy, have I got some apologizing to do."


OK, so the dream's a fake. But I do have occasional thoughts of such an embarrassing and career-damaging epiphany. It came to mind again when reading a passage on anti-television Web site Whitedot.org. The passage recounts when one of Whitedot.org's "spies" supposedly snuck into a recent meeting at New York's Yale Club of the Addressable Media Coalition concerning how the interactive television industry should address privacy. The AMC is part of the Association for Interactive Media, which is part of the Direct Marketing Association.


The passage went as follows:


"Art Cohen [senior vice president of advertising and commerce for ACTV and chairman of the coalition] is very concerned about people listening in on what he says. With the Addressable Media Coalition, he is determined to offer a place where industry leaders can speak in confidence, agreeing how to proceed before saying anything in public. 'You don't want to talk to the press about any of this,' he told us over and over. 'If some bad PR got out, whether it's true or not, it might take us a year to make it up.' "


According to Ben Isaacson, executive director of AIM, the quotes were taken out of context. The meeting was about setting guidelines and members were simply agreeing that they didn't want drafts of them out prematurely, he said.


Fair enough.


But media coverage of privacy simply can't get any worse. And this is one more example of the results of the industry's self-mutilating silence on the issue.


While most marketers agree that the privacy controversy is hysteria, how can we expect levelheaded coverage on the issue from anyone when those who know most about the subject are mum?


It's time for marketers to be completely open and honest with the press about every facet of data collection and stop waiting for the perfectly bureaucratic, unified message to be crafted before they talk. The current attitude smacks too much of spin. Yes, there are a lot of jackass reporters out there, but at this point the industry has nothing to lose.


It's also time to stop thinking that consumers somehow aren't bright enough to handle the facts and form their own rational opinions on the subject.


OK, so some aren't. But it's hard to imagine that the reaction from most consumers, once they learn what's really been driving this debate, would be anything but: "Oh, is that what this has been all about?"


One reason DoubleClick got its rear in a vice when it tried to marry Web clicking behavior with information in its Abacus co-op database of catalog transactions was because a USA Today reporter had to smoke them out on it. From then on, DoubleClick was in damage-control mode.


Industry's biggest privacy woes stem from its silence. Where is that "Got Milk" type of campaign the Privacy Leadership Initiative -- a partnership of CEOs from 15 corporations, including Acxiom, DoubleClick and Experian, as well as nine business associations, including the DMA and the Interactive Advertising Bureau -- is supposed to launch?


When New York Times columnist William Safire publishes one of his ignorant rants holding up the unrelated specters of government surveillance and identity theft to attack marketing's use of data, where are the rebuttal letters? ... Anyone?


As long as marketers stonewall the media on privacy, they deserve every line of ignorant, hysterical coverage the consumer press delivers.


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