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January 23, 2014
Can Marketers Ever Publicly Embrace Privacy?
We’re all consumers, so we ought to share their privacy concerns.
Today, I’m going to wake up in your house, and follow you around all day with a clipboard, recording your every move, interaction, and purchase.
Would you like me more if I did that? How about if I tried to sell you something at the end of the day at a 20% discount?
Well, it’s happening in a sense.

Recently, OfficeMax sent a direct mail piece to a suburban Chicago family. It was addressed to “Mike Seay, Daughter Killed in Car Crash Or Current Business.”
That’s right. Their daughter’s death became one data point in a customer profile. Gotta stock up on file folders for all the post-mortem legal paperwork, I guess. What makes it particularly egregious is that OfficeMax blamed a “third-party mailing list provider” for the error. So if you’re wondering, “What was OfficeMax thinking?” the answer is: They weren’t.
If it were my family, I’d make every attempt to find out which company or what system was responsible. They can blame a coding error or a mislabeled database field if they want to, but someone, somewhere decided that kind of information was worth collecting, aggregating and reselling. It’s sleazy. But it’s happening to all of us, every day, many times over.
Frankly, incidents like these blow a big hole in much of what many marketing and advertising gurus are preaching today. “Transparency in marketing?” Hardly. “The consumer is in control?” Not so much. “We’re building a one-on-one relationship with customers and targeting them with relevant information?” Well, that doesn’t sound much like a healthy relationship to me.
This is not about OfficeMax. It’s not about big data. It’s about the illusion of personalization in a world that’s much bigger, spread out, yet intricately connects all of us to commerce. And as an industry, we’ve decided the key to better marketing is to gather more information on customers we really don’t know. Where they live. Where they go. What they do. What they’ve bought in the past, or searched for online.
We’re seeing that it only takes small bits of that information, in the wrong hands, to throw society into a frenzy. Consider the recent Target data breach, the biggest in what’s becoming a weekly occurrence. I didn’t have my data breached because of Target, but I did get issued a new credit card a few months back for an “unspecified” security breach. And of course, the burden is on me to re-enter any stored credit card numbers on websites I use — which is a pain in the ass. As a consumer, I suppose I’m in control. That is, if I use the cash stashed under my mattress.
When information is funneled through a human being, naturally, the results are better. One example might be a personal touch at a Ritz-Carlton, noted for keeping detailed guest preference information that can be referenced by any of their hotels around the world.
Most marketers, however, don’t employ the human intelligence portion that makes data collection a truly remarkable tool. The reality is marketers will always default to whatever’s easiest. Right now, collecting vast amounts of information that never reaches human eyeballs is the cheaper, efficient way to go. It’s always better to abdicate responsibility when information is used maliciously.
It would take an actual movement, not some BS marketing movement, for consumers to rise up and say, “We don’t want this intrusiveness.” I’m not holding my breath on that. As a society, we trade our personal information for convenience every day. Consider it the Terms and Conditions of living a modern life.
As marketers, though, we do have the power to advocate how information is collected — and the power to advocate restraint. I wish advertising and marketing firms would be more skeptical of using information instead of willingly vacuuming as much of it as we can. I wish we’d ask ourselves, and our clients: Are brands improving the customer experience in proportion to how much information they’re collecting and trying to use?
If we can answer that question, I’d feel a little more secure about where my personal information goes. As well as the future of our business.

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Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small. 

Visit his copywriting websitesee his LinkedIn profile or follow him on Twitter.

And please, buy his book for 99 cents.


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