Ad Tech and Surveillance Capitalism: It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way

By TechFunnel Contributors - Last Updated on April 22, 2020

Guest Contribution by Julian Baring, General Manager-North America, Adform

Scrutiny of advertiser use of consumer data has been on the rise for years, and now there’s a new phrase entering the lexicon that’s upping the concern considerably: “surveillance capitalism.”

Coined by social psychologist Shoshana Zuboff and heavily dissected within the pages of The New York Times in recent months, surveillance capitalism refers in part to the vast economy that’s being constructed around people’s personal data that is being obtained, sold and otherwise leveraged, often without the knowledge or understanding of the consumers themselves.

It’s easy to understand why people are concerned and it’s also easy to understand why advertisers are on the defensive. After all, the so-called “leading surveillance capitalists”—Google, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft—are at the heart of most brands’ digital media plans these days. That means brands are both underwriting and benefiting from surveillance capitalism.

Here’s the thing: It doesn’t have to be this way. Today’s culture of surveillance capitalism isn’t a boon to advertisers. Quite the contrary. Participation in surveillance capitalism, in which seemingly innocuous services harvest personal data for uses that consumers neither benefit from nor understand, runs directly contrary to the direction in which advertiser relationships with consumers need to be headed.

Prioritizing Value Exchange and Trust

Rising awareness around surveillance capitalism is prompting legislative responses around the world, including GDPR and the more recent CCPA. And most certainly, there is more to come.

Some within the marketing community have lamented the increased restrictions and lockdown on consumer data collection and use, but such consternation demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the role that data should be playing within the consumer relationship today.

Above all, brand-consumer relationships today should be predicated on two things: a clear value exchange and trust. If a brand’s approach is to leverage surveillance for the purposes of engaging consumers in ways that they don’t understand, then the brand is dropping the ball on both of those overarching marketing imperatives.

The simple fact is that brands only succeed when consumers see value in what they offer. When consumers see value in maintaining a relationship with a brand, they will grant them permission to know who they are and to put that information to use in keeping in touch with them—that is, as long as they trust the brand with that information.

When a consumer sees an ad or receives a communication from a brand that makes the person question how the brand obtained its insights (e.g., “was my phone listening to me when I mentioned that product?”), that person gets creeped out.

Trust—if any existed to start—is lost, as is the potential of the relationship. What might have been an acceptable and even welcome promotion from the brand is ruined, all because of the consumer questions how the brand acquired its intelligence.

Think about it like walking into a hotel. If you’re a premier member with that hotel chain and you check-in, you won’t be surprised when they know that you prefer a room on the first floor and a hypoallergenic pillow.

But if it’s the first time you’ve ever visited a hotel and the clerk at the front desk knows those details about your preferences, you’re going to be understandably disturbed. This simple logic applies to all brand relationships: If a brand knows a consumer, it should be because the person wants to be known.

What Feels Right Is Right

Few marketers today agree with covertly surveilling consumers for the purposes of marketing to them. They know that’s not the way to build lasting relationships. Unfortunately, it’s a concept that’s become engrained at many of the platforms with which they’re doing the majority of their business, and it’s one from which brands must actively seek to disengage.

Brands should be building their campaigns and consumer relationships around data related to their own marketing activities—and only their own marketing activities. In this way, there’s no confusion—not among consumers, regulators or the brands themselves—about how and why a company is communicating with consumers in a personalized way.

Consider your communication and marketing efforts with your consumers as an on-going conversation, engaging over multiple cycles, sharing the benefits or considerations that lead to a transaction. Our industry has developed the necessary programmatic, data management and creative optimization tools to enable trust-based communications. But avoid the hidden mechanics of surveillance capitalism.

Develop your insights solely on what consumers have shared with you through their actions, their interaction with your digital properties, or your creative and brand efforts.  The tools to centralize this knowledge are out there but now the onus is on marketers and agencies to use them responsibly and remain beholden to trust and transparent value exchange.  What feels right is right!

The regulatory horse is out of the barn, yes. And it’s going to gallop across the tech landscape in the coming years. But this needn’t be a concern for brands that put their relationships with consumers at the heart of their activities. The line between right and wrong is clear when it comes to industry practices. Advertisers simply need to get on the correct side of it.

TechFunnel Contributors | is an ambitious publication dedicated to the evolving landscape of marketing and technology in business and in life. We are dedicated to sharing unbiased information, research, and expert commentary that helps executives and professionals stay on top of the rapidly evolving marketplace, leverage technology for productivity, and add value to their knowledge base.

TechFunnel Contributors | is an ambitious publication dedicated to the evolving landscape of marketing and technology in business and in life. We are dedicate...

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