He Sees You When You’re Sleeping…

by Taylor Bennett

True to my craft, I often describe myself as a data freak. It’s something that’s been drilled into me over the years by leadership and now I have a real passion for it. I never even took a formal statistics class (there was more than one reason why I chose a career in communications rather than something based on math and science), yet every time I sit down to create a marketing plan, Ifind myself craving for any stats I can get my hands on. It’s just good business to know everything about your customer before you try to sell something to them.

Apparently, I’m not alone. Ad Age recently released anarticleabout the ominous “Big Brother” and how CMOs and other advertising professionals like myself might actuallyBEBig Brother. Although I hate the thought of being associated with George Orwell’s 1984 puppet-master, it makes sense. The data collection capabilities and even standard practices in today’s world are truly incomprehensible. And if you’re like most of the nation, you don’t realize just how much information most marketers and crafty self-starters has access to. For example, did you know that right now I could tell you what your annual household income is, what types of things you like to do on the weekend, what kind of diet you have, where you shop, what chronic illnesses you or your family members have—or that I may even be able to predict your upcoming bout of the flu before you come down with it, thanks to smartphones. For those with a little bit of money and know-how, the world is your oyster.

Although this wealth of information obviously makes my job a lot easier, with great privilege comes great responsibility. In my opinion, privacy-related issues and laws will be the most important issues my generation (Generation Y) will face in the coming decades, and this behavioral mapping and data mining is certainly a hot topic even now that may end up having a huge impact on the advertising industry. The problem that needs to be addressed by all of us as marketing professionals, before the government does it for us, is how to responsibly manage, use and protect this data.

I believe the answer goes back to very basic principles—treat others as you would like to be treated. In order to be a responsible data steward of information, I recommend the following:

  1. Verify the legitimacy of your data sources and find out how they procure their information. Do they do so in an ethically sound manner? What are their corporate privacy policies?
  2. If you’re the one collecting the data, then do so in an open and honest way. Make sure the individual understands what information they are releasing and how they can expect it to be used.
  3. When using sensitive information, be sensitive. At this point, I’ll reference a greatNew York Times Magazine articlefrom February on this subject where Target used purchase data to send relevant coupons to customers. Unfortunately, in one case they ended up sending maternity related coupons to a teenage girl, whose parents were horrified to discover that yes, indeed their daughter was pregnant, and that Target apparently knew that before they did. Not very sensitive.

Only seek the information you really need. If your campaign calls for an electronic ad blitz for women’s clothing, do you really need to know whether or not they have four or more televisions in the house or whether or not they are anemic? Probably not.

If you come across any real doubt about the ethical implications of your campaign research, then stop and rethink. How can we still achieve our goals while protecting the privacy and integrity of our valued customers? To the companies that can answer that question, go the spoils.