A Troubling Prognostication

It’s that time of year again. My inbox is jammed with pitches from PR flacks trying to get some editorial love for their clients. In all my years of writing, I think I have actually taken the bait maybe once or twice. That is an extremely low success rate. So much for targeting.

In early January, many of the pitches offer either reviews of 2019 or predictions for 2020.  I was just about to hit the delete button on one such pitch when something jumped out at me: “The number-one marketing trend for 2020 will be CDPs: customer data platforms.”

I wasn’t surprised by that. It makes sense. I know there’s a truckload of personal data being collected from everyone and their dog. Marketers love platforms. Why wouldn’t these two things come together?

But then I thought more about it -- and immediately had an anxiety attack. This is not a good thing. In fact, this is a catastrophically terrible thing. It’s right up there with climate change and populist politics as the biggest world threats that keep me up at night.



To close out 2019,  fellow Insider Maarten Albarda gave you a great guide on where not to spend your money. In that column, he said this: “Remember when connected TVs, Google Glass and the Amazon Fire Phone were going to provide break-through platforms that would force mass marketing out of the box, and into the promised land of end-to-end, personalized one-on-one marketing?”

Ah, marketing nirvana: the Promised Land! The Holy Grail of personalized marketing. A perfect, friction-free direct connection between the marketer and the consumer.

Maarten went on to say that social media is one of the channels you shouldn’t be throwing money into, saying, “It’s also true that we have yet to see a compelling case where social media played a significant role in the establishment or continued success of a brand or service.”

I’m not sure I agree with this, though I admit I don’t have the empirical data to back up my opinion. But I do have another, darker reason why we should shut off the taps providing the flow of revenue to the usual social suspects. Social media based on an advertising revenue model is a cancerous growth -- and we have to shut off its blood flow.

Personalized one-to-one marketing -- that Promised Land --  cannot exist without a consistent and premeditated attack on our privacy. It comes at a price we should not be prepared to pay.

It depends on us trusting profit-driven corporations that have proven again and again that they shouldn’t be trusted. It is fueled by our darkest and least admirable motives.

The ecosystem that is required to enable one-to-one marketing is a cesspool of abuse and greed. In a pristine world of marketing with players who sport shiny ideals and rock-solid ethics, maybe it would be okay. Maybe. Personally, I wouldn’t take that bet. But in the world we actually live and work in, it's a sure recipe for disaster.

To see just how subversive data-driven marketing can get, read "Mindf*ck" by Christopher Wylie. If that name sounds vaguely familiar to you, let me jog your memory. Wylie is the whistleblower who first exposed the Cambridge Analytica scandal. An openly gay, liberal, pink-haired Canadian, he seems an unlikely candidate to be the architect of the data-driven “Mindf*ck” machine that drove Trump into office and the Brexit vote over the 50% threshold.

Wylie admits to being blinded by the tantalizing possibilities of what he was working on at Cambridge Analytica: “Every day, I overlooked, ignored, or explained away warning signs. With so much intellectual freedom, and with scholars from the world’s leading universities telling me we were on the cusp of 'revolutionizing' social science, I had gotten greedy, ignoring the dark side of what we were doing.”

But Wylie is more than a whistleblower. He’s a surprisingly adept writer who has a firm grasp on not just the technical aspects, but also the psychology behind the weaponization of data. If venture capitalist Roger McNamee’s tell-all expose of Facebook, "Zucked,"  kept you up at night, "Mindf*ck" will give you screaming night terrors.

I usually hold off jumping on the year-end prognostication bandwagon, because I’ve always felt it’s a mug’s game. I would like to think that 2020 will be the year when the world becomes “woke” to the threat of profit-driven data abuse -- but based on our collective track record of ignoring inconvenient truths, I’m not holding my breath.

2 comments about "A Troubling Prognostication".
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  1. Craig Mcdaniel from Sweepstakes Today LLC, January 8, 2020 at 4:06 p.m.

    Interesting.  There is one additional factor to consider. The consumer is far greater knowledgeable about their own personal data. At the same time, these same consumers are expecting more in return. Meaning the consumers want greater discount amounts to lower prices or in my field, higher valued sweepstakes prizes.  Motivating the consumers to act will be the challenge in the coming years.

  2. Scott Gerschwer from Compart NA, January 10, 2020 at 2:03 p.m.

    I guess it depends on who you ask. I read on these pages the other day that according to the “Voice of the Generations” report released last summer by our friends at Adobe, attitudes with regard to customer data are generationally divergent. When asked about this statement: “I worry about how my data is used all the time.” The response was amazing. 43% of boomers agreed with the statement. Only 20% of millennials did. Only 14% of Gen-Zers agreed.

    There was a 30 point differential between how Boomers and millenials view this simple statement: “There is a place for companies interacting with individual people on social networks, forums and/or messaging sites.”

    Among boomers surveyed, just 33% agreed with the statement, “There is a place for companies interacting with individual people on social networks, forums and/or messaging sites.” By contrast, 49% among Gen-Xers, 63% among millennials and 69% among Gen-Zers agreed with the statement.

    Clearly this divide complicates an already complex communication ecosystem. But there will be clarity. Commerce will be balkanized. Young people gravitate toward brands they trust. They will limit their exposure to those brands only and ask those brands to deliver a personal customer experience. Personalization is great, anonymization is even better. Those brands better deliver and not abuse that trust or they will be abandoned and the data will be placed off-limits to them within the confines of the coming privacy regulations. They will not be allowed to sell that data. They will be market forced to respect the wishes of their customers or lose them. Young people have this power and they know it. 

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