Not that long ago, consumers, publishers and advertisers were beneficiaries of an unspoken contract. Content was created to draw the attention of a specific audience and advertisers got a chance to talk to them all at once. Forty years ago, on a sleepy Sunday afternoon on the Rutgers College campus in New Brunswick, N.J., a friend of mine put it this way: “I’d love to live in the ads in the Sunday New York Times Magazine.” That was proof of the concept.
But much has changed since then. We now confront what former CBS News President Andrew Heyward calls “an embarrassment of niches” when it comes to media and other content. As it has become harder and harder for advertisers to speak to consumers all at once, they are deploying increasingly intrusive technologies to speak to them one at a time. In doing so, advertisers and publishers have lost track (pun intended) of the pot of gold’s source at the end of the rainbow.
The FTC report is well-intentioned in trying to help consumers regain their standing in the relationship. But any advertiser, publisher or company dependent upon consumer choice ought to have been hard at work at this already. Instead of tracking consumers, co-mingling data or using it in unintended ways, why not renegotiate the deal so that, as my college pal saw soft value, we consumers can be offered something harder.
If there is value in collecting my personal information, let me share in it. If I don’t like the deal, I can choose not to participate. If I do, I can recruit my friends. And it need not only be about “getting paid.” Publishers and advertisers have done a poor job of showcasing the consumer value they deliver. Most of us only use a narrow band of the Internet and we’d like to not be abused for the choice. It is no longer enough to say, “If it weren’t for advertising, there’d be no Internet.”
This is where industry can begin to renegotiate its contract with the consumer. And the FTC, more than just being another shoulder to the wheel of a car stuck in the mud, can support the effort by paving a few roads. Rather than dictate specific day-to-day behavior, the agency can establish how companies ought to be accountable. This can allow for variation in approach but not in outcomes. A perfect balance between industry action and regulatory regime — all to the benefit of consumers.