EDITORIAL: It’s About Time

Clearly, a campaign in which this industry takes its side of the privacy debate directly to consumers is long overdue. And last week's announcement at the Direct Marketing Association's 83rd Annual Conference and Exhibition of a three-year, $80 million to $100 million effort to show consumers how marketing information benefits them was a welcome one (//www.dmnews.com/articles/2000-10-16/11089.html).

While — in study after study — consumers say they're concerned about their privacy online, they're still hazy on the particulars.

For example, according to DoubleClick chairman/co-founder Kevin O'Connor, in a survey taken before his firm's failed profiling initiative with offline catalog database division Abacus Direct, consumers defined their top three privacy concerns as credit card security, identity theft and the transfer of medical information.

But they're confusing privacy with fraud. And the benefits of sharing information are never going to come out through the privacy-obsessed media.

The reason: Pro-privacy is a mindlessly easy position for a reporter to take. Everyone, to one degree or another, values privacy. And privacy advocates, on the surface at least, are pro-consumer protection. We'll save the oh-so-private Internet-wasteland rant for some other time. In any case, stories questioning the pro-privacy camp run the risk of being perceived as akin to anti-mom and apple pie.

Check this passage from a recent Business 2.0 article on advocacy group Center for Democracy and Technology and its role in the privacy debate: “Thanks in part to people like [CDT founder Jerry] Berman, privacy as a political issue is quickly becoming the center of Washington discourse. Privacy advocates have historically had a difficult time creating a groundswell around the issue. Aside from the usual horror tales of telemarketing harassment, junk mail, and so-called identity theft, there's little tangible evidence that the corporate trade in names and numbers is harmful.”

Come again with that oxymoron? Little tangible evidence? Even reporters who realize that so far no harm has been done can't bring themselves to just say it.

Oh, there's evidence. We just can't see it. Got to have that weasel word in there so readers know that even facts won't get in the way of this writer's allegiance to the side of righteousness.

Merchants who use names and numbers to market their wares cannot count on even the business press to tell their side of the story, so they've got to do it themselves.

And $100 million ought to just about cover it. That is unless the DMA's brand is closely associated with the effort.

In that case, it's going to take $50 million just to convince consumers that the DMA is more than just telemarketers and Ginsu knives. And a campaign tagged “The DMA: More Than Just Dinner Interruptions” would cloud all the other points that must be made.

Consumers need to feel in control of their Internet experience if business is ever going to wrestle the privacy debate back from the irrational hysterics who are driving it now.

As a result, this upcoming campaign should teach Internet users not only the benefits of targeted advertising, but also how to opt out of profiling efforts. It should teach people how to find and disable cookies. It should teach them where the important parts of a privacy policy generally are and what language to look for to gage a company's level of information exchange.

It should include easy-to-read literature in every America Online disk, and in every box shipped by Dell, Compaq, Hewlett-Packard and the like.

It should also focus on far more than just the benefits of targeted advertising. “Let us store and trade information on you and we'll give you relevant advertising and shopping discounts” is hollow. The campaign should spell out the number of jobs at stake. And not just with numbers and graphs, but with real people. Shoot a commercial with workers in any of the fulfillment centers that will surely shut down if privacy advocates get their wishes.

Consumers have every right to demand that marketing information collection efforts exclude them. Industry, however, has every obligation to ensure that they understand the terms and ramifications of the debate before they choose.

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