October 05, 2012

I like commerce as much as the next guy. Big fan of the economy. I’ve even been known to stop some poor kid from embarrassing his future self by lecturing his friends and relatives on the 5 pages of Marx or Nietzsche he just discovered in his freshman survey class (“The thing is, Scooter, a lot of people have actually thought about this before…”). But even I have never contemplated the kind of brass-balls free-market defense the Association of National Advertisers did on October 1st, when they declared that tracking your browsing history so they can better sell you cars, soda, and insurance was a form of – wait for it – consumer protection.

 

Somewhere in a cell, Bernie Madoff is slapping his thigh, saying, “Damn, that’s bold.”

 

The ANA’s open letter to Microsoft comes in response to Microsoft’s plans to make a “Do Not Track” option the default setting on their upcoming Internet Explorer 10 browser. The “DNT” option would tell web sites that your computer does not want to be tracked by cookies—and so, theoretically, you shouldn’t receive targeted ads. (In reality, almost no web sites actually care about the DNT request. They just track you anyway.)

 

That an advertising association would fight efforts to handicap marketers is hardly surprising. What is surprising, to me at least, is their preposterous argument that tracking people’s every online move is somehow a principled stand for what consumers want.

 

“We believe that if Microsoft moves forward with this default setting, it will undercut the effectiveness of our members’ advertising and, as a result, drastically damage the online experience by reducing the Internet content and offerings that such advertising supports. This result will harm consumers, hurt competition, and undermine American innovation and leadership in the Internet economy.”

 

Working at a firm that specializes in using language that resonates with people, I guess I can see what they’re going for here. People like Internet, they don’t want to be harmed, they like competition, and everyone goes bananas for innovation.

 

The trouble is, stringing all these positive words together kind of ignores that consumers see tracking their online activity as something that’s good for marketers at their own expense.  At best they think of it as creepy or annoying to see the Ford whose gas mileage numbers you checked to win a bet follow you around the internet like the Jim Carey character in The Cable Guy. At worst they think it’s a total violation of privacy.

 

Telling consumers that it’s for their benefit is sort of like breaking up with someone while patting him on the head, telling him it’s for his own good.  Even if you really, really seriously mean it, it’s just not believable. Ever.

 

Microsoft, for its part, called the move “an important step in the process of establishing privacy by default, putting consumers in control and building trust online.” This shows a much better effort to listen to what consumers are saying about the issue. And it has a far greater likelihood of being believable.

 

The ANA, of course, has every right to argue its case in the court of public opinion. But framing what consumers view as an invasion of privacy as consumer protection is unlikely to win anyone over.

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