Two things have reshaped my view on privacy in the past few months; 1) reading Luke Harding’s gripping account of the Edward Snowden revelations and 2) Advertising Week Europe. After much thought I have come to a couple of personal conclusions. Firstly, data collection is not benign. Secondly, it is – probably – the silver bullet for advertisers.
I was lucky enough to attend Guardian chief editor Alan Rusbridger’s panel discussion at Ronnie Scott’s on the opening Monday of Advertising Week earlier this month, and thanks to Harding’s book I came in with a deep understanding of the complex web of issues at play; metadata, PRISM, Merkel’s cellphone, the gang of five. Rusbridger’s opening quote set the agenda for the rest of the week; metadata is not a stripped back sanitized form of our data, “it is our souls”. A powerful concept for consumer and advertiser.
Let’s take the consumer first. If we are, as is often said, the aggregate of the five people we spend the most time with then, in today’s digital society, metadata can figure us out in a split second. Who we love most, what we care about, what frightens us can all be figured out using metadata. Anyone with access to it has incredible power to understand us; hence its potency in the hunt for terrorists.
Now to advertisers. Back in the golden years of the industry, the Mad Men couldn’t reach inside our souls. Instead they sold us dreams and try to encourage us to reach for them. Think keeping up with the Jones’s. Today data gives them the power to truly understand us. Why bother selling a dream when you can know the ones we’re having already? To my first point; data collection is not benign. It is not just a tool that uses demographic data to make ads more relevant. It is a profound unmasking of the consumer’s veil of self.
Occasionally there was a flippancy with which privacy was discussed in some – not all – of the sessions at #AWEurope. On one panel, each of the five participants shrugged, laughed and dismissed a question about privacy in the same way you might have dismissed Tony Benn; a relic barking warnings from the sidelines, to be respected but not feared. A million miles away from the action. Almost an irrelevance. Generally participants did a good job of paying lip service but you sense it is just that; lip service.
That’s because asking advertisers to respect privacy is the equivalent of the marshmallow test on children. If you haven’t seen it, YouTube it. A child is given a marshmallow and promised a second one if they wait five minutes before eating the first. Naturally, few can resist. Data is the industry’s silver bullet with the power to completely change an age old paradigm. Now you CAN reach inside your audience’s soul. Advertisers want to eat their marshmallow now, not wait to for consumers to adjust to the idea no matter what the long term benefit might be.
Indeed, l I lost count of how many times the word data was used at #AWEurope. Everyone had a perspective; media agencies, tech companies, marketing directors, agency chiefs. Data felt very much like the Marilyn Monroe of this particular party, while Tony Benn lurked uncomfortably in the corner.