Addressable Privacy?

As we've moved ever-closer to the inevitable reality of marketing messages that are targeted at either the household or individual level across just about any communications platform, the issue of privacy has kept pace like a sheepdog attempting to herd a large and unruly flock of sheep. The relationship is inevitable, unpredictable and not entirely one of choice -- but it's here to stay.

From the origins of direct mail through to the present day with online behavioral targeting, email marketing and the seemingly imminent promise of addressable TV advertising, the issue of privacy has gained more attention. There are more advocacy groups established to represent the interests of consumers, taking pot-shots at those who allegedly play fast-and-loose with personal information for commercial gain). Periodically we see politicians weighing in on the topic as well.

From an objective perspective, there is no doubt that the issue has become more complex, as technology has enabled the harvesting, mining and leverage of more and more data based on individual behavior. And there's no suggestion that the ever-expanding universe of data sources will diminish in the foreseeable future.



Not surprising, then, that we see The Center for Democracy & Technology publish a document this week calling on the incoming administration to pass new legislation to protect consumers with regard to the use of their personal information -- wherever it was gathered (read online and offline). The document also calls for a redefinition of "personally identifiable information" in light of advances in technology.

While some may feel that this is both unwelcome and unhelpful, that is scarcely the point. As legislation inevitably develops in an attempt to keep pace with technology, those depending on their ability to use consumer data (an ever-growing number) will find their lives becoming more complicated, as they have to comply with more regulation.

Why inevitably? Well, I may be wrong, but it seems to me that when we reach the time when practically all households in the country are receiving addressable advertising based on data gathered from set-top boxes (and other sources such as their online behavior, Acxiom and the like), the advocacy groups, politicians and even some consumers themselves will have found themselves another issue on which to campaign.

After all, TV is the big daddy of all media. Although the Web is well and truly a mass medium, TV still far outstrips it in sheer dollar value as an industry. If TV advertising is to be targeted in the ways we all expect and hope, then I'm willing to bet that the issue of privacy as we've seen it discussed with reference to the Web will be utterly eclipsed when the TV debate kicks off in earnest.

And in a world where just about every marketing message that comes to me electronically is based on sophisticated targeting algorithms that are in turn based on "my" personal information, you can bet that an increasing number of consumers are going to want to control how that information is used.

Personalized data will eventually lead to personalized privacy settings. We'll still have the vast majority of people placing themselves into a relatively small number of discernible categories (as defined by the levels of consent and types of permission they will opt into), and we'll also have consumers who are both informed and feel a sense of control. Who knows, they may even be more open to the marketing messages they receive.

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