Opinion: An ethical approach to consumer data
A Modern war of the Titans: How will the digital ad universe be divided?
In Greek mythos, the Titanomachy (War of the Titans) was a 10-year battle among deities in which the older generation was overthrown by a new order of Olympian gods led by Zeus. Victorious, the Olympians divided the universe, with Zeus taking the sky and ruling mortals, Poseidon owning the seas and Hades left with the underworld.
Today, we have a new titanic battle as Apple squares off against Facebook and other social media platforms. The spoils are the 1s and 0s representing our lives online.
While many adland observers concede that the industry went too far collecting mortals’ data without their understanding or permission, fears of a great cataclysm are like clouds overhead as we think about changing the status quo. It’s a question of doing what’s right versus feeling the pain of change. However, it is perilous not to change, especially when solutions are already at hand.
Why a war?
At only 16 years old, Facebook is the old guard in this story. It became an ever-present force in our lives and one of the world’s most powerful companies by making it easy for us to connect with each other — and by generating massive data in the process. Perhaps surprisingly, 44-year-old Apple is the upstart, even if it’s one of the world’s most admired advertisers. Apple, too, is pervasive. Whether or not you own any Apple computers, phones or tablets, its innovation has touched us all by setting technology trends and pace.
The two are arguing over Apple’s plan to require that consumers be asked whether they want their data tracked across apps, as is done by Facebook and others today. Apple wants apps in its ecosystem to offer easier-to-understand descriptions for how data is used, and they have positioned themselves as consumer privacy advocates. Skeptics assert that free, ad-supported apps could be forced into paid models through Apple’s App Store — where Apple gets a 30% cut.
Facebook additionally argues that advertisers who rely on personalized advertising would be harmed, particularly small businesses for whom targeted, digital advertising has a leveling effect in markets with competitive national and global brands. They’ve taken their case to the public court in a campaign featuring full-page newspaper ads.
When there’s no law, there’s only one law
Who’s right? Without meaningful federal legislation governing online consumer privacy, righteousness is subjective. The truth is technology has outpaced government agencies, legislators and even consumers. Social norms, sometimes written into laws, define behaviors society deems good and right, but people don’t fully understand how this all works.
In this lawless state, one precept dating back to 1909 still holds true: The consumer is always right. But where data and privacy are concerned, do we know what consumers want? There are clues.
First, we know that consumers do want to be heard. A 2020 study found that 89% of consumers believe brands should listen to their feedback. And between January and March, the percent of consumers saying they share their opinions through surveys rose from 79% to 85%. More than 50% said that sharing their opinion was an intrinsic motivation for responding to surveys — but more than 70% said rewards were.
It’s ironic that an industry wholly-focused on consumer communications has done such a poor job conveying the benefits consumers receive when they share their data, one form of feedback. Nevertheless, thanks to high-profile data breaches, foreign incursion into politics, and now … this fight between Apple and Facebook — consumer awareness is on the rise. They are beginning to understand that all those 1s and 0s about them have value, and they’ll increasingly expect commensurate rewards.
Census level data is a luxury, not a necessity
The word ethics comes from the Greek “ethos,” meaning the science of morals. Advertising has gotten increasingly scientific, with technology being used for hyper-targeting, but moral approaches are possible alongside the science. There are many ways to target and reach effectively discrete consumer segments on digital platforms and in other media. After all, advertising was targeted based on a variety of criteria long before there was digital advertising.
In fact, there’s an entire industry dedicated to narrowing in on audiences. It’s called market research. And while observation is the most powerful market research tool, it’s not the only one. When given a choice, plenty of consumers will say yes to influencing brands with their opinions and behavior — especially if compensated fairly. Market researchers often compensate consumers to participate. Taking surveys and opting in for online tracking mechanisms is not for everyone, and some will prioritize privacy above all else. As marketers, we should be okay with that. After all, the consumer is … repeat after me … always right.
We may not yet know what varying levels of privacy different consumers will come to expect, but we do know, generally, they prefer choice and control. Look at TV. For too long, consumers paid for high-priced cable TV bundles and hundreds of channels they didn’t want or watch. Much of what they watched was bloated with commercials. The internet changed that, and starting with the most technologically adept and budget-conscious (aka younger consumers), people leaped at cord-cutting and creating their own packages. Disrupted, TV’s elder gods are now prioritizing streaming and diversified subscription and ad-supported models.
Regardless of how things land between Apple and Facebook, the industry has little choice but to communicate better and to broker a new deal with consumers around their data. We may find the mortals brighter than we thought and even reasonable when bargaining around a well-communicated value exchange.
David Grabert is vice president of brand and communications at DISQO, a technology company raising the bar on quality in consumer insights by transparently engaging people in ethical data sharing and use. David’s experience spans cable/telecom, advertising, media and technology spaces, with senior roles at WPP’s GroupM, Cox Communications, Clear Channel Outdoor and Canoe Ventures. He has driven successful communications strategies for these companies as they navigated digital transformation, with a primary focus on the evolution of media platforms, consumer behaviors and commerce.