Audience Measurement In A Free Society

I'm going to begin, as I often do, with a story.

Remember the TV show "Taxi"?  For my money, one of TV's great sitcoms: funny, but dark and melancholy at the same time.  Anyway, there's one where the Christopher Lloyd character, a '60s stoner casualty-turned-cabby called Iggy, has Martin Short for a fare.  Short is playing a beleaguered broadcast network executive, and as the two of them talk, Short learns that the burned-out Iggy has a savant-like ability to predict the ratings performance of TV shows before they are broadcast -- even noting that a particular show about to air will do well, but will perform poorly in Cincinnati.  After Iggy's predictions prove to be spot-on, Short tracks him down, flags his cab, and begs him to take a job at the network.  Iggy demurs.  Finally, Short leans forward and says, "If you'd had this job in 1968... you could have saved 'Star Trek.'"  Iggy's face lights up, and they have a deal. 

This is about the importance of audience measurement in the digital and commercial ecosystem. See, when all is said and done, I believe that everyone would want to save "Star Trek" if they could.

Digital privacy is perhaps the hottest of buttons in our industry.  The IAB recently released a "Data Usage & Control Primer: Best Practices & Definitions" document, which is an attempt to educate, communicate a point of view, and establish best uses and practices with respect to data usage in the placement and delivery of online advertising.

I unambiguously applaud this initiative. But here's the dicey thing for me, a lifetime market research and audience measurement professional. Once upon a time, there was no confusing audience measurement with advertising.  Advertising was, you know, commercials.  Audience measurement was (here's a "tell" about how old I am) numbers printed in books.  Ads were placed by companies like BBD&O, J. Walter Thompson, and Young & Rubicam, and aired on networks operated by companies like ABC and CBS.  Audience measurement was conducted by companies like Arbitron and Nielsen (the TV guys.)  It was an ecosystem with nice, neat silos.

Of course, compartmentalization is SO last-century. Today, an increasing share of the ads we see online are placed there through ad networks, ad exchanges, data exchanges, targeting companies, DSPs -- a model without an analog analogue.  The general model is this: a consumer requests a Web page, and in the time between that request and the subsequent page delivery, a third party analyzes the characteristics of that computer (based on targeting characteristics stored in a cookie on the computer), determines which buyer's ad should be displayed (based on the criteria the advertiser is targeting and the price they are willing to pay for the impression), and serves that ad with the page.

But when the use of consumer data is so inextricably embedded into the targeting and delivery of ads to individuals, that seems to be the place where the privacy advocates and watchdogs tense up and start to sniff.

It is an important debate.  Randy, IAB, I wish you Godspeed.

My parochial concern is that with such targeting models emerging, we need to be sure we distinguish between audience measurement -- which is essentially just a flavor of market research, with its own set of standards and best practices -- and impression targeting and delivery, which depends on intelligent deployment of data about the individual audience member.

In the analog world, no one really thinks audience measurement, or market research in general, constitutes any sort of onerous invasion of privacy. If you're selected and agree to participate, Nielsen comes to your house, asks you a bunch of demographic questions, and then attaches a box to your TV so they can know everything you watch.  They even expect you to log on when you sit down in front of the screen so they know it's you. But no one is scared of this, no one thinks we need Congressional hearings.  In fact, we all love reading about the top-rated shows each week in the local paper.  It isn't Big Brother; it's pop culture.

And you know why that is?  Because we "get" that this is market research, that there is nothing nefarious about it, that it is actually a net positive for society.  As I say, basically we all want to save "Star Trek."

But for some reason, things that seem perfectly reasonable and innocuous offline, that are even widely understood to help make all our lives better in some small way (as I believe audience measurement does, because it keeps the shows we like on the air), become fraught with issues once they pass through the digital looking glass.

Back in the 1970 NBA finals (here I go again), Knicks-Lakers, Walt "Clyde" Frazier was guarding Gail Goodrich, who shared the backcourt duties for L.A. with the legendary Jerry West.  Frazier was a defensive genius, and in fact his nickname came from bank robber Clyde Barrow, because of how often Frazier stole the ball.  West had the ball, dribbling, looking for an opening... so Goodrich came toward him to set a pick.  Suddenly West was frantic, shaking him away, because while Goodrich was well-intentioned, he was bringing along his defender, Frazier, to the ball... and of course, he promptly stole it.

As an audience measurement guy in this privacy debate, I feel a little bit like Jerry West.  If ad targeting starts attracting too much privacy heat, I don't want it to drag in market research and end up stealing my ball.

So this is a plea and a paean, an ode to market research.  Market research is a vital part of commerce, of the economy.  And it is quite profoundly a vital part of the digital economy; isn't that what the most measurable medium is all about?  We market researchers (and audience measurers) don't snoop into anyone's business; we don't do any reporting about anyone except in aggregate and anonymous projections (here's the popular websites among 25-44 year-old women with kids; not, here are Mary Smith's browsing habits.) We solicit active, informed consent, and ultimately the digital (and other) businesses you rely on can serve you better with the insights we collectively provide. Even the U.S. Congress understands this about market research; that's why, when the Do Not Call law was enacted, market researchers were exempted. (Sure, it didn't hurt that congressmen use political polling to run their campaigns...)

So I try to stay out of the privacy debate, but likewise, I want to keep legitimate, best-practices market research out of the debate too.  Market research helps businesses make smarter decisions that allow them to keep and create jobs and introduce new products (and media vehicles) that people will pay to consume, either directly or by patronizing sponsors.   A free market without market research becomes something else entirely, and it functions with decidedly less efficiency.  Think about your own company.  Do you use, or conduct, market research?  Do you think you are infringing on consumer rights in the process?  Could you do business effectively without market research?

I'm guessing your answers are yes, no, and no.  In which case, we agree.   So let's work together to make sure that the walls around legitimate, best-practices market research and audience measurement remain clearly defined, so that the legislators and the privacy advocates don't get confused.
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4 comments about "Audience Measurement In A Free Society".
  1. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , June 15, 2010 at 7:03 p.m.

    Trick question - what did Iggy and HAL have in common? Instinctively, there seems to be a few apple and orange comparisons in this article.

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , June 15, 2010 at 7:04 p.m.

    Nothing is free, especially society.

  3. Andy Brown from Kantar Media , June 16, 2010 at 3:21 a.m.

    Josh, I completely support your principle of not curbing audience research in the regulation of web targeting. A couple of points as to how we can act:

    1) Let's use the market reserach industry bodies e.g. ARF and Esomar to lobby with regulators.

    2) At a company level, we (as Kantar Group) take this seriously enough to have a Chief Privacy Officer to advise us, our clients as well as driving a POV on such issues

  4. Joshua Chasin from comScore , June 16, 2010 at 4:48 a.m.

    Andy, I've actually been at a meeting on the topic with your (US?) Chief Privacy Officer... and couldn't agree more.

    Cheers.

    --josh--