Clearing my throat of Phlegm… I am assuming you are seeing the same press I am about Phorm and their abilities to personalise advertising by tracking user activity at ISP level? If not, then I suggest you get out from under your rock and go read. This is a crucial debate and a pivotal moment for human history. I cannot emphasise that enough.

Here’s some for starters.

I want to throw some spanners into the Phorm debate. I know one of the senior guys at Phorm personally and spoken at length with him about exactly how the technology works – he knows I am one of the biggest advocates of ethical considerations in digital advertising, yet by same token I helped find him the job there.

Consider these premises:

  • All advertising is intrusive in nature. It’s like conversation ‘hey, have you seen blah’. You find yourself being led down a path not originally intended. It’s human nature. People dislike BAD advertising, not advertising per se. They discuss clever ads in conversation (From Smash and Charlie says to Sony Bravia and Cadbury’s Gorilla).
  • People wear Jack Daniel’s tee shirts and Guinness hats. People tattoo themselves with their favourite football team. People want to brand themselves with Burberry, wear Levi’s jeans and Channel sunglasses and keep up-to-date with those trends and buy magazines to this avail and shop regularly in said brands shops. We HAVE to accept this is part of the fall out of brand building and there is your audience right there – and yes people like “good” advertising in that regard. They have chosen to opt in, even though ‘persuaded’ sub-consciously that it is the right thing for them.
  • A user has a choice – pay for content, receive it free but accept advertising as a trading requirement, or steal it. All media consumption follows this model.
  • Police track ISP’s data. They are monitoring and watching what goes on for a reason – security.
  • Grouping people together into buckets is the exact point of a media agency – 18-24 year olds, ABC1s, etc for targeting reasons.

So we have to take above views into consideration.

Phorm do not link a personal identifier to any person (that is the curent law, developed BEFORE the internet!), they merely group people into buckets and buckets within buckets – the technology is doing the job of the media agency in that regard, using technology in situ similar to that the police use.

In terms of usability, anything that groups people into buckets – manually or technically – is not illegal nor unwanted by users or advertisers alike, espcially if in essence it is saying, hey have you considered this. To carry on with this line of questioning when no longer required is in no-ones interest. Nor is it appropriate in certain cases , such as listening into my phonecalls to sell me something or keyword scraping my instant messenger chats – when I am searching for info fine, not when I am communicating with friends. Facebook take note.

Let me give worse case scenario. I look for ‘prams’ today via Google. My wife has a miscarriage this evening. Tomorrow am targetted with ‘Mama’s and Papa’s’ ads. Sure there will be a reaction, but it could easliy have been coincidental, just like my friend saying ‘hey there is a pram sale on’, not knowing the change in my situation.

Tracking at ISP level will see changes in my behaviour and adapt advertising based on changes in my patterns and searches very quickly to help avoid such fall-out. It is dynamic and not static – better and quicker than a media company can – who targets me with ‘Mama’s and Papa’s’ ads a month later based on old methodology.

All technology has severe ethical considerations – just like nuclear power – used for catastropic bombs, or cleanest, efficient fuel for the environment? (sounds ike a HSBC ad! Hmmm, maybe branding works..?)

Now I totally stand by ethical considerations in advertising and appreicate Phorm is a mere catalyst for what is to come, but so was DoubelClick way back when. Look at reaction to Amazon when they started ‘recommending’ – now people personalise homepages and expect site to remember them. Change is difficult, but I do believe navigatable. Equally, we must see all angles to make a correct balanced judgement about technology, else we should just get out of marketing per se, because is rife with questions around ethics…

I want to hear you thoughts?

For anyone interested, I wrote a history of digital advertising for my MA – Flash by name, cookies by nature which may help set the scene.