Monday, November 21, 2011

Have marketers become privacy invaders?

As an Integrated Marketing Communication (IMC) graduate student at Northwestern University, I have been exposed to many ethical issues a marketer faces in order to reach their business goals. For example, is marketing to children who are easily influenced wrong? Is pushing people to buy more of something they don’t need good business practice or ethically inacceptable?
I have been exposed to marketing communications problems for more than 2 years, now in my previous job and now in graduate school, and I still struggle with these questions. Recently, my ethical boundaries were questioned in my IMC law class.

How many times have we said: “I got a new haircut, I’ll post a picture on Facebook tonight to you can see it!” or “Oh! It’s easy I’ll just google it!” or “Just checked in on Foursquare and got a coupon!”

Yes, Internet makes life easy. I don’t know what I would do without it. Facebook and Google are my digital life. But I never realized how much they knew about me until I read the Wall Street Journal series on Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and privacy.

Did you know that the top 50 website in the country puts on average 64 tracking items on your computer? And that’s an average!

ISPs know what we browse, what we order, what we read, how much time we spent on each website, and every click we ever made in life. Then, they sell this information to advertisers to place ads in your browsers, so they can customize the ads offerings according to your past behaviors. They never ask for permission and never tell you that you have trackers in your computer that provide them all the information they need.

Clearly, we do not realize how much power we give ISPs by letting them collect our personal information. In fact, some countries are overtly against the violation of privacy. Google Maps and Google Street View raised a lot of debate around the world. South Korean authorities suspected that Google was collecting unauthorized private communication and data while it was preparing to launch Street View. During the investigation, the South Korean authorities confiscated data from Google and will perform regular raids. Several other countries and US states have become concerned too. In Germany, officials and consumer-protection groups are trying to give the control back to every single user, who wants to be able to decide whether or not Google can collect, disclose, or sell their information. 

ISPs and advertisers defend the fact that the data collected serves the consumer only. It enables them to provide more relevant content versus a cluttered mass communication.  And we, IMCers, can definitely identify with this concept. After all, we learn everyday about how we can use this collected data to maximize ROI.

So where do we stand? How can we find a compromise?  And if we find a compromise, will our work be impacted?

As a marketing analyst and strategist who use this data to guide my recommendations, I can confidently say that data collection can do harm as long as it’s anonymous. Therefore the ethical issue lies in the fact that the data is collected without the users’ knowledge. I believe users should clearly know that their information is being used and to what purpose it is used. Users should knowingly decide if they are willing to share and how much they are willing to share.

By Naziha Houki, Graduate IMC student, Marketing Analyst and Strategist @nazihahouki

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