This week the Wall Street Journal launched a big series about targeted online advertising. In some corners, the “news” that advertisers track consumers was derided as breathlessly naive. Others thought the WSJ missed the real story, studying only the supply of advertising and missing the consumer demand side. Scott Rosenberg does a nice job of putting the various views in a ladder of reaction from ignorant fear to enlightened futurism.
We founded Bynamite because we believed that consumers would eventually see the “cookie monster” that is online advertising, but we felt that this monster doesn’t have to be feared if it can be tamed. We knew that this year would bring a period of highly varied reaction to the increased consumer awareness of the issues – and when emotional reactions of fear and derision settle down, people will move beyond mere reaction to find clearer paths of action for consumers. A lot of the commentary and analysis about online advertising focus on what advertisers, governments and advocates want. But what will consumers actually do?
For consumers, there are only four kinds of actions when you see the cookie monster coming:
Some people will just want to block out all advertising, and anything that enables it. For these folks, there are AdBlock, NoScript, BetterPrivacy, and a host of other tools, most of which are free. But acting only to block advertising will never be successful, because it’s like trying to win an arms race with only a shield. And a flimsy shield at that – truly blocking information from getting to advertisers would require “going off the grid” in a way that few people are willing to do. Unless you are willing to stop using the Internet, cell phones, bank accounts, credit cards, loyalty cards, coupons – you are not going to avoid giving your information to advertisers.
There are two kinds of people in the “trust everything” camp, and ironically they don’t even know they’re in the same camp – if they did they’d probably object to each other’s cooties. One kind are the folks who loudly claim that “Privacy Is Dead” so you might as well just give all your information to everyone anyway. The other kind are folks who remain ignorant, for whatever reason, of everything that is going on around them. What these people have in common is that they’ll let anything happen to their information, and whether the reason is sophisticated futurism or hopeless ignorance, the outcome is the same: Advertisers get the information easily and do whatever they want with it. We think both views here make unrealistic assumptions about how most people think of their online lives.
Appeal to the Government
Some people, when faced with commercial developments that don’t align with their own judgments of fairness, will look to the government to impose laws and regulations to protect a certain view of consumer interests. We think that’s admirable behavior in many cases. But it doesn’t happen to be our cup of tea. Government regulation is definitely part of the equation, but we’ve always been folks that like to compete to serve customers, not have the government decide what customers should have.
Choose a Better Mousetrap
Given the understanding that blocking is imperfect, that promiscuous trust is unsatisfying, that the government rarely provides the fastest or best solution – we believe that consumers will choose a commercial product that restores their power, that turns advertising from a nuisance to a mutually beneficial engagement.
This is certainly an unfinished puzzle from our point of view, but we believe that if someone builds a better solution, consumers will choose it. We believe all this talk about privacy is merely an expression of market demand that continues to go unfilled. That demand is too great to go unfilled for much longer: someone is going to figure out how to build a revolutionary mousetrap here – one that turns the consumers from mice into the kings of the advertising jungle.