by  Bob Hoffman (@adcontrarian), San Francisco Bay The snot really hit the fan last week when The Washington Post and The Guardian reported that the US had secret spying programs that are “tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies.”

It was inevitable that our industry’s obsession with Internet data collection would come smack up against questions of civil rights and individual liberties. But no one in the marketing or advertising industries seems to care about the consequences of our obsession with data, or the central role we are playing in this controversy.

It is an article of faith among the pundit digerati that the Internet has given us reg’lar folks more control over our lives. One of the mantras of marketing’s chattering class is that “the consumer is now in charge.” These people think that because we can tweet “the fries at Wendy’s really suck” we now have greater economic, social and political control. They are alarmingly insensitive to the trade-offs the web has presented us with.

On several occasions during the past few years I have taken the, ahem, contrarian position that not only are we not “in charge,” but the illusion that we are is masking the fact that the powerful are getting more powerful and that the individual citizen has less control than ever.

I first wrote about this in Adweek on December 29, 2010 in a piece called Big Brother Has Arrived, And He’s Us.

The Internet now knows everything about us… It knows our political beliefs and our sexual habits. It knows what we eat and whether we drink too much… It knows what our ailments are, what drugs we use, what doctors we see and what our psychological profiles are….There’s no reasonable way that this is a good development for a free society… There is no realistic vision of the future in which this will not lead to appalling mischief.

On April 13, 2011, I wrote:

There is an outrageous amount of personal data being collected. It is too accessible, and anyone who takes promises of internet privacy and security seriously is an idiot.

On April 9, 2012, I wrote,

Never before in history has this kind of information monopoly been in the hands of non-governmental institutions. This is completely new and we have no idea where it leads…

Whether the benefit we are getting in security information is worth the price we are paying in civil liberties is above the pay grade of advertising bloggers. But the issue of marketing’s role in all this is not.

We’ve got to get ourselves out of the snooping business. We’ve gone too far.

So far as I can tell exactly no one in the marketing industry seems to give a shit. The big time web honchos at Google, Facebook, et al are in denial and playing word games. According to the San Francisco Chronicle

…when speaking about complicated computer systems it is easy to play word games and — technically — tell the truth. “Direct access” or “open-ended access” are terms that can be truthful simply when you install another system between the first two…

“I find it extraordinarily unlikely that this could happen without these companies’ cooperation,” says Dan Auerbach, the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s staff technologist.

Governments have always concocted reasonable sounding excuses for spying on their citizens. There has never been a time when there wasn’t some threat to public safety that articulate leaders couldn’t twist into a rationale for a secret branch of government. The difference now is, we in the marketing/media complex are complicit — we’re one of the greatest assets they have.

Is this a good thing? Do we really want to continue our relentless efforts to collect more and more data? Responsible people in our industry need to think about these questions.

Did I say “responsible people?” In the marketing industry?

Yeah, right.

– The Ad Contrarian is Bob Hoffman, is the author of The Ad Contrarian and 101 Contrarian Ideas About Advertising. Reprinted from his blog The Ad Contrarian.

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