Do Marketers Understand Privacy? Is That Why It’s Disappearing Before Our Eyes?

We should ask: What’s the nature of the “violation” or “privacy”? How much do we really want it and at what price (money or benefits or both) are we prepared to make believe that the violation didn’t really matter so much in the first place?


For many people, privacy is about being able to close and lock the bathroom door.

It is about documents or events which are meant to be “Private and Confidential,” but seldom stay that way. A wise friend, the CEO of a large and successful company, joked that the only way to keep something truly private was to tell no one, not even his wife, and to post it on the office bulletin board under an instruction:


“It’d be cool to talk about how marketers can create relevant marketing in a way where you don’t feel violated?” wrote a Target Marketing reader.

Or, put somewhat differently, we should ask what’s the nature of the “violation” or “privacy”; how much do we really want it and at what price (money or benefits or both) are we prepared to make believe that the violation didn’t really matter so much in the first place?

Like it or not, as marketers, part of our job, the bottom line of the plethora of articles headed “9 Ways to Penetrate the Inbox” is to discover the best ways — nine or 29 of them — to get past the privacy filter we think we have erected around ourselves. “But then how would I know about that great 24-hour deal on the camera I’ve always wanted?” asks the shutter bug, oblivious to having been tracked to the mall and bombarded with seductive cell phone messages, just as he was approaching the camera store.

How many of us give more than a passing thought to the degree to which our targeted marketing initiatives may represent a violation of the privacy of our prospects? Perhaps we should think of it as one of those unquantifiable #MeToo questions captured by the song:

“You must remember this
A kiss is just a kiss
A sigh is just a sigh
The fundamental things apply
As time goes by”

Dooley Wilson

Are we as marketers aware and sensitive to the “fundamental things” and have we any measure of how much each of our prospects values privacy? We should know that no two prospects are really alike no matter how we read the tea leaves of our statistical analysis. And one of the critical differences is in their unique perceptions of what does and does not constitute an invasion of their privacy.

One would have imagined that all the negative noise about Facebook’s violation of its subscriber’s privacy and the $30 to $50 billion fine they are going to have to pay to the Federal Trade Commission would focus their attention on this issue. But that’s yesterday, not today.

Even if the fine, described by Kara Swisher in the New York Times as “a parking ticket. Not a speeding ticket. Not a DUI — or a DUI(P), data under the influence of Putin. A parking ticket. … That’s why its stock rose significantly after the news … In other words, the privacy concerns raised loudly by politicians and the media have not hurt Facebook’s growth … they’re going to need a bigger fine if they actually want to stop Facebook from violating its users’ privacy.”

Today, I wouldn’t bet that this would make all that much difference. The website Popular Info asked: “ … what is the point of the Facebook policies if they are not enforced in advance of publication?”

Facebook is rightly getting blasted for failing to prevent Trump 2020 ads and others from white supremacists, anti-Muslim false news and anti-LGBT content that would surely have reached their target audiences at least once before being taken down and forced to replace the offensive content. And that involves money, something Facebook has shown little eagerness to give up.

There are only two things which might make platforms conform to playing by the rules:

  1. Platforms such as Facebook demanding of advertisers that each campaign or ad buy (even electronic) carry a certification from the advertiser that the content does not violate the platforms’ published rules with a significant financial penalty to the advertiser for non-compliance and a prohibition from using the platform for say, three months for the first violation, six for the second, etc. This would awaken advertisers to the cost of breaking the rules and cost the platforms considerably more than a parking ticket in lost advertising revenue, certainly enough to make them take notice.
  2. The only other thing that might change the current acceptance of privacy violation will be a noisy revolution from consumers, not impossible to imagine, but hardly already to be seen marching toward our doorsteps.

Penalizing the advertiser and the platform for usage violations would almost certainly work. As Deep Throat advised in “All the President’s Men,” “follow the money.”

Turning the rising tide of privacy issues is more problematic. A recent study published by Iterable reported:

  • 48% of shoppers will share data for more personalized service (Deloitte)
  • 11 hours a day is spent by Americans engaging with electronic media (Nielson)
  • 84% of marketers use customer data to inform their marketing (eMarketer)
  • 76% of marketers are prioritizing customer loyalty over customer acquisition in 2018 (IDG)

This research answers our reader’s question, how can marketers create relevant marketing in a way where the customer doesn’t feel violated, a difficult conundrum. Put simply: If today’s 11-hour electronic media addicts want all the promised goodies waiting for them out there in the digital universe, and they don’t rate more than “bathroom door privacy” as high on their priority lists — 48% don’t seem to care — we are going to have to face this reality: For those who want to live in the digital world, our privacy is disappearing before our eyes. Should we be up in arms? Probably? But in fact, we are not. And there is very little we seem to want to do about it. Whether it could rightly be called a “violation” is a question more of perception than substance.

The rest of us, those to whom privacy is important, will just have to bow to the majority, do without privacy and take solace in this perceptive limerick penned by a late biomedical electrical engineer who worked at that by day and who wrote science fiction (and limericks) by night:

Was there no Life before there was Twitter?
Was it stodgy, lackluster or bitter?
I find Life too fleeting
To spend time in Tweeting,
I’m a face-to-face kind of a critter!

Author: Peter J. Rosenwald

Peter J. Rosenwald is an expat American living and working in Brazil; founder and first CEO of Wunderman Worldwide, International Division of Wunderman agency) and first chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi Direct Worldwide; strategist and senior executive in charge of building subscription and data-driven marketing for Editora Abril, Latin America's leading magazine publisher; founder of Consult Partners, active strategic marketing consultancy working in Brazil, U.S. and U.K. International keynote speaker on data-driven marketing and author of "Accountable Marketing" (Thomson), "Profiting From the Magic of Marketing Metrics" (Direct Marketing IQ), and "GringoView" blog author for Brazilian Huffington Post. With an international perspective, my blog's purpose is to share my maverick views of this business I've spent the last half-century working in, enjoying and observing.

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