All of the members of Future of Advertising and Marketing panel were in absolute agreement: targeted online advertising is not “Big Brother.” Tracking cookies and other technologies that allow for online ads to be customized for individual users, like the stuff that tells your browser to show you car ads after you visit the Ford website, might seem disconcerting at first, but panelists hoped that the browsing public could be educated out of their discomfort with these technologies. After all, they argued, the goal of these forms of tracking isn’t to spy on the user, but rather to provide him or her with an “enhanced consumer experience.” No more obnoxious ads trying to sell you stuff you don’t want! Just ads targeted just for you!
Its true that targeted advertising can be quite convenient. When mattress shopping recently, I didn’t mind getting ads announcing Mattress King ads popping up on random sites. As I suggested in my post yesterday, I don’t this sort of information usually acts as “surveillance” in the Foucauldian sense, since there is no human agent to read it, or to enforce normative judgments about it.
However, we shouldn’t overlook the possibility that this data could end up in human hands, and maybe hands who mean to do ill with it. Security breaches have become an all to common feature of our contemporary information environment. Think, for example, of the woman whose location was revealed to her abusive ex-husband by faulty privacy settings in Google’s “Buzz” software . Could a hacked or accidentally exposed database of advertiser data have similarly disastrous consequences?
Furthermore, even if these sorts of accidents could be avoided, what of the tracking technologies original intent, the “enhanced consumer experience?” Is an “enhanced consumer experience” always a feature? If we believe that human beings ought to exist as more than just consumers, an ever more tightly fitting and transparent experience of consumption might, in fact, be something we want to avoid.