The Return of Mass Marketing?

I have a plan to establish campaign finance reform for Congressional Elections once and for all. Our mistake has been attempting to control how much money candidates can collect, but what if we approached it from another direction? What if we enacted a law requiring candidates for statewide office to spend their campaign dollars evenly across all 50 states? Then perhaps a three-term senator with a boatload of corporate donations would actually have to knock on doors and participate in town hall debates to get reelected. To install this new system as chairman of the Federal Election Commission, I nominate Julie Brill. She is, after all, the inspiration for this plan.

Current Federal Trade Commissioner Brill, it appears, finds digital targeting of consumers inappropriate and urges marketers to become more democratic with their appeals. With the issuance of the FTC’s data broker report this week, Brill took the somewhat unusual step of issuing her own six-page statement interpreting the meaning of the report and its implications for legislation regulating so-called brokers, which the Commission interprets as list brokers as well as companies such as Acxiom and Experian. In so doing, she makes the assertion that marketers that employ the services of data brokers engage in discriminatory practices.

“Perhaps we are described as ‘Financially Challenged’ or instead as ‘Bible Lifestyle.’ Perhaps we are also placed in a category of ‘Diabetes Interest’ or ‘Smoker in Household,’” Brill writes. “Data brokers’ clients use these profiles to send us advertisements we might be interested in, an activity that can benefit both the advertiser and the consumer. But these profiles can also be used to determine whether and on what terms companies should do business with us as individual consumers, and could result in our being treated differently based on characteristics such as our race, income, or sexual orientation.”

In essence, Brill calls into question, if not the legality, the morality of the very practice of marketing. Marketing, to be sure, is discrimination, though not of a racial or ageist or sexual variety. It is segmentational discrimination that identifies and targets potential customers to make the most of limited marketing dollars, and to best satisfy consumer needs. But Brill seems to suggest that marketers should cast a wider, if less effective, net, even if it winds up offending or wasting the time of said consumers. If you are a member of the Financially Challenged with a decrepit old Kia in the driveway, does it do your heart good to receive emails from BMW? And what might result if Bible groups were blanketed with display ads for swingers clubs?

Brill rings an alarm that “Data brokers examine each piece of information they hold about us–where we live, where we work, and how much we earn, our race, our daily activities (both offline and online), our interests, our health conditions, and our overall financial status–to create a narrative about our past, present ,and even our future lives.” But marketers are salespeople, not scriptwriters. They are businesspeople, not defamers. Most reputable enterprises that gather digital data never capture an individual’s name unless offered. Nor do they hold on to customer information for long. For one thing, data brokers often stipulate length of time or purpose that clients can use purchased data. For another, holding too much Big Data is a drain on financial and people resources.

Brill is justified in claiming that old information or sketchily drawn inferences about people could harm their financial standings and cause them not to receive preferred offers from financial institutions. But marketers are not loan officers. Marketers are there to round up the usual suspects who might benefit their companies’ bottom lines. No one is stopping any mortgage-seeker from getting on the Internet, or visiting a bank branch, or picking up a phone to apply for a loan using accurate records.

Still, Brill seems to be of the opinion that marketers should spread their offers equally across all consumer segments. “Nothing in the Commission’s report suggests that data brokers or their clients are running afoul of anti-discrimination laws,” she writes, adding, “It is foreseeable, however, that data that closely follow categories that are not permissible grounds for treating consumers differently in a broad array of commercial transactions.”

Is the good commissioner suggesting that marketers return to a bygone age of mass marketing? Should they abandon the Huffington Post for the Saturday Evening Post? YouTube for The Ed Sullivan Show? Is she blaming the Internet for being the Internet? Furnishing consumers with knowledge, access, and power while at the same time providing marketers with demonic segmentation tools?

Brill used a quote from Othello as a lead-in to her statement, but something tells me all this data broker business is Much Ado About Nothing. Forget our intractable Congress. The powers that be at corporations like Google, Microsoft, Oracle, Apple, Facebook, and Salesforce—which depend on the free exchange of digital data to make sizable deposits into the national GDP—might have more to say on the matter.

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