The Vast Luddite Conspiracy Theory

I've long been in favor of the IAB taking a more muscular and vocal position in the online privacy debate. Given the blink-of-an-eye in which Congress gave life to the National Do Not Call Registry ("...Telesales business? Bu-bye!"), there is little doubt in my mind that regulation of online data and targeting is a very easy "yes" for both Republican and Democratic lawmakers. But in following the group's work on this issue and reading the reports from last week's IAB Annual Meeting in Carlsbad, I can't help but feel that the view from the bunker may be getting a little narrow. While I'm certain it's playing well to the membership, I think the IAB's efforts are falling short in several important ways.

The Conspiracy Theory. According to IAB President Randall Rothenberg, the drumbeat for regulation is "... happening because well-organized anti-business and anti-advertising groups have gotten the ear of regulators and politicians and purposely inflamed fears about our industry." This premise sidesteps consumers' legitimate questions and privacy concerns and instead blames outside agitators for all the trouble. This may have played well in Carlsbad, but it won't last two seconds on Main Street.

The Value Exchange. Inherent in the IAB's case to consumers is that better targeting will equal better and more relevant advertising. But let's be honest: as an industry we've never delivered on that promise. The creative assets are simply not scalable enough. The more we rely on this premise, the worse we end up looking.

Advertising Is Creepy. Whether any of us like it or not, consumers do not trust, love or crave advertising. On a good day they tolerate it as a means of getting something else they want; free content, discounted service, whatever. While trying to satirize the latent fear and loathing of online advertising, I fear the IAB has buried its real message beneath a bunch of banners and skyscrapers that reiterate the very sentiment that's driving the revolt.

For me, the real story we should be telling is this:

  1. You like the free internet that just keeps getting better and faster and deeper all the time? Just like basic cable, this whole thing needs to be underwritten by companies that want to sell you stuff. That said....
  2. Some anonymous stuff about the kinds of sites you visit and the stuff you show interest in is going to be used anonymously to help those companies spend their marketing money more effectively to support the free internet you like (see point 1.)
  3. This "Cookie" thing that you've been hearing so much about? Think of it like your EZ Pass, the magnetic strip on the back of your ATM card or the scanner in the supermarket. We all trade little bits of anonymity for convenience in the 'real world' every day. And you're still far more anonymous online than you'll ever be at the A&P or on the New York Thruway.
  4. If you feared the heater in your house was spitting out Carbon Monoxide, who would you call: Your heating guy or your city councilman? Keeping your data and identity safe and secure online is, in the end, good business. And the business people who build websites and deliver ads to those websites all have the very best technologists working for them. They're just as vested in the long term success of the internet as you are. Let's not let "the cure" kill the patient.

While we're at it, can we once and for all bury the term "targeting?" Let's go survey a million consumers and see if we fine even one who says that's a good thing. Words matter.

Freedom. Access to information. Fear of being controlled. Self determination. These can be the issues that support the development of online marketing. But so far they're only the weapons being used to defeat it.