News & Views

Opinion / Redefining Private Space

by Contagious Contributor

Ash Bendelow, managing director at Brave, on why he hates blurred lines between privacy and personalisation

Robin Thicke may have had a point. (Obviously not the sexual assault bit.)

Our modern obsession to broadcast, share, over-share, observe, judge and validate our lives is causing far-reaching changes in human behaviour and desires. And the tools that enable these actions are engineered in a way that blurs the lines between the private and public spheres.

We all are, to a greater or lesser extent, the producer, editor and director of our own self-titled Truman show. And although the exploitation of the little trust that still remains may fuel the marketing machine, a backfire is surely on the horizon. Brands must tread carefully in their competition for the most ‘personalised’ experience to avoid complete and utter distrust.

Self-esteem and self-actualisation benchmarks are being reset

Two fundamental things are driving this change – the blurred lines. We are arguably addicted to being always on (whether we want to be or not), and our reality is being distorted. Our private time is no longer that. There is broadcast potential in every single situation in life, and the prevailing culture is urging you to do it, whether it’s checking in on a first date or sitting in your pyjamas commenting on presidential debates.

Permissions are bumps in the road as a cultural juggernaut chugs on

We can talk about data value exchange; we can talk about cookie tracking; we can talk about second generation digital natives understanding the value in their data; we can talk about ad blocking; we can talk about the skip generation or we can talk about permission based regulation. Some of these are very real opportunities and threats for how brands ‘build relationships’ with their consumers, but these are all merely bumps in the road to how things are changing.

Arguably the last bastion of digital privacy has gone

Here’s the deal. In June 2016 Google deletes a clause in its privacy settings that it said would not combine Double Click cookie information with personal information without consent. In practice, this theoretically means Google could serve you ads across the internet based upon key words you used in Gmail. Never has there been a richer example of the blurring of lines between private and public personal space. There’s also Facebook, which tracks logged-in users across the web whenever they visit websites using a Facebook API.

So, two of the biggest cultural change makers are engineering and assisting the blurring of the lines. They make sure that we are in control (and yes we are, when we decide to read page 10 of terms of service updates and act upon it instead of just clicking ‘agree’), but their motivation remains to create seamless, personally relevant experiences.

Advertising in its very nature is reality distortion, but now everyone’s reality is being distorted

Brands and marketers are embracing the tools – either to play a role in satisfying the appetite of the always on consumer, or to fuel the reality distortion (in a positive way).

We could argue that the line between enrichment and ‘creepiness’ depends entirely on the brand and the type of relationship we want or find acceptable with it. At base level, retargeting is more often than not welcomed across brands such as ASOS and Topshop when they are showing you items or garments that you’re likely to be interested in, based on understanding your past behaviour and predicting your future interests. It is showing you something you may have missed out on. Or Burberry using NFC, RFID and modeling your digital behaviour to profile you as soon you cross the threshold in store, to then equip their store colleagues with intel on what you’re likely to be looking for.

Then we have stories about how ‘computational propaganda’, or fake news often produced by and from bots, has played a role in influencing opinion in the recent US presidential election. This in its rawest sense could be argued as a threat to the notion of democracy. 2016 is the year ‘post-truth’ made its way into the Oxford dictionary, arguably a regression driven by the highest order of politics influencing culture and the future before all the facts are checked.

As post-truth dictates in a general sense, a marketing tool that doesn’t identify itself as such is purposefully looking to influence decision making with potentially significant effects. The more reality gets distorted, the less we understand what is real within the private and public spaces.

Never before have we had so much data, but so little information. Never before have we had so much advancement in technology, a path to the abuse of power.

Sadly, for humanity, maybe the Black Mirror prophecies are not such distant or foreign concepts. Brands have a responsibility. Agencies have a responsibility. The privacy versus personalisation debate is nearing an event horizon, and if we misuse and exploit it for short term gain at this juncture in its development, what little trust remains will soon be gone.