Civilians Say the Darnedest Things!

The unthinkable happened yesterday in New York. Right in the middle of conference about consumer privacy and data policy, someone invited - get this! - a bunch of consumers! And while the earth didn't change orbit and frogs didn't fly, a window did open and shafts of sunlight and bursts of fresh air penetrated a discussion that's become all too cloistered and stodgy.

I'm talking about "Evidon Empower," the gathering I referenced in last week's Drift. Thanks to the folks at Evidon, I got the chance to lead the concluding discussion in which Omar, Pam, John, Art and Michael (five civilians from the greater New York area) told the agency, publishing, technology and trade organization leaders what they really thought about the whole ad technology and privacy conundrum. Here, a few of my observations:

The Drift is proudly underwritten this week by PubMatic, which empowers publishers with one holistic platform to sell advertising more intelligently.

1. Civilians don't compartmentalize things like we do. To us, browser settings, cookies, computer performance, and the pervasiveness of advertising all fit into separate compartments of the brain. Not so much with these folks. To them, they're all strands of the same giant hairball. You ad people are flooding me with advertising, making my computer crash, compromising my data and creeping me out. Solutions that approach data privacy in a vacuum are going to be a tough sell.

2. They don't agree with each other on panels as much as we do. None of that "I agree with Jim and here's how" for this group. They have unique and iconoclastic opinions, and they can be pretty passionate about them. Perhaps we should stop saying "The Consumer" in the same way we stopped saying "Asia." Simple archetypes will make us blind in this discussion.

3. They don't like reading the crap our lawyers write. As Art put it so succinctly, "It's like I have to learn your business if I want to opt out." No question that giving consumers tools and choices is a good thing. But let's remember that they've gotten pretty jaded over the years by privacy policies that may as well be in Sanskrit and interfaces right out of a Monty Python sketch. They don't hold out much hope that future options will be much more helpful. We're going to have to reinvent our definitions of simple, fast and easy to satisfy them.

4. They're pretty much just tolerating us. One panelist (Michael) opined that getting ads about stuff he'd be interested in was better than random ads, and another (John) said that getting recommendations for music he'd like was a good thing. That largely exhausted the positive comments. Online advertising is still seen as a benign cost at best, a persistent source of irritation at worst. While they may grudgingly see some truth to the idea that "advertising is keeping the free internet alive," on a bad day it can seem more like a threat than a service. Those who've reached the end of the rope - like Pam - just delete their cookies every single night.

5. 'Targeting' is not a good word to use. As Omar put it, "No offense, but I'd rather not be targeted at all." Unraveling the hairball of consumer attitudes on digital advertising is a huge job, but it seems to me that the first step is to clean up the language. As I've said many times, 'targeting' is one term we ought to 86 right away. It's loaded and it's dangerous.

I applaud the people at Evidon; not only for the conference but for the work they're doing on consumer empowerment and control. It won't be easy, but as Omar said himself, "Maybe there's a chance that this conference might be the start of things getting better."