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Dear Major Marketers, Minor Marketers and Interested Others,

Hi.

OK, enough of the chirpy chit-chat, let's get down to brass tacks.

Over the years, I have had an uneasy relationship with you. I've not cared one bit for being your prospect. And, as it seems that being your customer is just an extension of a permanent, unrelenting and ever-more-intrusive marketing campaign, I'm not nuts about being your customer, either.

This should not surprise you. Your role, at least as it has been envisioned for quite some time, is to find me and make me less happy than I am.

One example: A couple of years ago there was a Dodge commercial that made fun of a teenager who was working a pizza-delivery job to pay for his car as opposed to partying with kids whose car payments were less. I was troubled by this commercial on several levels. But, I am sure that my feelings were nothing compared with what those kids working those pizza jobs felt. (Is it wrong to work hard? Is being a pizza delivery person really that un-cool or clown-like or of such low status?)

The commercial was shameful, but no hue and cry was heard across the land. It's a pity that a "throw-down" version of Janet Jackson's nipple couldn't have found its way into the spot so as to attract outrage.

David Glen Mick—an acknowledged expert in consumer research and one of America's leading semioticians—delivered a rich, provocative address at St. Clement's in Belfast, Ireland, in September 1997. Its title will, unfortunately, put many of you off, but here goes: "Searching for Byzantium: A Personal Journey into Spiritual Questions that Marketing Researchers Rarely Ask."

Based on the title alone, with its reference to a poem by William Butler Yeats, his remarks, you may think, have little to do with common sense and clear-eyed accounts of life in the real world. Don't think—read:

 

Another set of spiritual questions we seldom ask ourselves concerns the effects of marketing and consumption on human character. By character I do not mean human values, but rather our psychological temperament as we go about our daily activities. What kind of person does marketing and consumption encourage or discourage?

 

Mick's answers include examples of qualities of temperament that are, in his opinion, encouraged by marketing and consumption: impatience, incivility, judgmentalism and distrust.

Under the category "distrust," Mick, as he does throughout the speech, refers to the time he and his wife spent in Denmark:

 

One of the benefits of living abroad is that most of the companies that knew where you were in your domestic marketplace cannot find you anymore. The junk mail does not get forwarded. No more envelopes arrive marked, "Survey Inside #23407" which, when opened, quickly turn into a not-so-subtle pleas for a donation, or an invitation to request more "product information" (also known as direct mail and advertising). Similarly, at dinner time phone calls of solicitation cease. In fact, in our Danish residence the phone rarely rang at all. In Denmark I no longer felt like the hunted prey of hundreds of corporations.

What does this constant chase of cat and mouse do to the bond of trust among human beings? If our days and weeks are filled with the need to be suspicious, on continuous guard against those would like a portion of your bank account, then suspiciousness becomes a salient mental orientation, always at the forefront of our minds, even in contexts that may not call for it....

 

(Read the full text of David Glen Mick's "Searching for Byzantium" here.)

Major advertisers and marketers: you make me unhappy. It's what you do. You invite me to compare myself, unfavorably, with others. This tactic obviously works for you to the tune of billions and billions of sales revenue. It doesn't work for me, though.

It is time for the end of me. You have worn me out. You have contributed to my ill-temperedness, at least a little bit. And, now, I'm like one of those email lists that you've strip-mined. When you think of me from this point forward, hear the words "diminishing returns."

"De-consumer" me, please. I am now ready to hire a stunt double or data avatar or trusted relationship proxy. You have brought us both to the end of me.

I just don't trust you with me anymore

Let's say that I'm a customer of your company's products or services. Here's what I want:

Far less of you: As your customer, I want you to provide me the option of not receiving any more marketing communication, in any form, from you.

Why should you offer such an option?

Because, believe it or not, there are lots of folks just like me who don't ever want to hear from you, so you're wasting time and money. I might even be willing to pay you—though this does smack of a mental-health protection racket—say $10—to be removed from your marketing database. Bottom line: I want those "bits" you have of me—those that you would want to use to market "at" me—obliterated.

Major credit card companies, this one's for you: As long as I keep my end of the credit bargain up, I don't want to ever hear from you with any marketing messages via phone, email, direct mail or any means. (Oh, and that annoying flap that has some sort of offer on it and is attached to the return envelope—you know, the envelope that I pay you with?—lose it.)

Now, if you're going to change the terms of the credit contract, legally speaking, I have to hear from you. Now, I want you to exceed the legal requirements for notification. I want that notification document in 10 or 11-point type—and as a courtesy it should be written in a language that bears some resemblance to the English that one might hear on "Oprah." If I sent you checks that were as hard for your bank to decipher as your financial terms are for me to decipher, let's just say that you wouldn't like it.

Far less of me: There are all kinds of laws, regulations and standards that now—or will soon—apply to how you handle my personally identifiable information and customer records: Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (or HIPAA) for healthcare organizations, Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act for financial services companies, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 for publicly traded companies, just to name a few.

In addition, there's a two-year-old California law that requires that you notify me if my data has been compromised because your security and information systems have been compromised.

And because of several high-profile security breaches, there are at least three identity protection and/or anti-spyware bills before Congress, the most notable of which is the Specter-Leahy Personal Data Privacy And Security Act Of 2005.

This is all good. But, in the light of recent news regarding LexisNexis and ChoicePoint and MasterCard, I just don't trust that you'll take care of me. Your mission is to learn as much about me as possible so as to refine your cat-annoys-mouse marketing techniques. With the increasing use of Extensible Markup Language (XML) and the adoption of flexible, service-oriented architectures, it will become far easier (and more tempting) for you to amass even more detailed profiles of me.

But, as naive as this will sound, STOP IT. For once, stay your hand. Show restraint.

Why? You can't handle me with sufficient care. Your network systems are far more vulnerable than you know. (Your IT and security folks aren't keeping up with the known set network vulnerabilities, which include software patches that have yet to be implemented and security policies that are not enforced. Indeed, it has been estimated that something like 90% of the vulnerabilities that are exploited are known vulnerabilities: in other words, stuff that—you and I would think—your information assurance people might have gotten around to shoring up.)

Of course, security isn't only a matter of technology; it also requires the improvement of processes and the commitment and education of people.

Here's another disturbing fact. A while ago, I somehow got myself on a mortgage professional email marketing list. So, for the past several months, not a week has gone by that I haven't received a solicitation offering me qualified mortgage leads (i.e., completed applications)—including Social Security numbers—in exchange for a small fee.

In addition, I don't trust you with me because your company isn't paying any attention to the open, multi-company standards work of the Trusted Computing Group (see trustedcomputinggroup.org), and thus doesn't recognize why your employees' next PCs should be "trusted."

So, what's a trusted PC? It's a notebook or desktop computer that contains a little, inexpensive chip called a Trusted Platform Module (TPM), which measures the software and hardware integrity of a given PC. Already, millions of PCs with TPMs have shipped, most of them (thus far) from IBM. Currently, TPMs are available in PCs from Dell, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Fujitsu and Toshiba. IDC estimates that by 2007 some 55 percent of the world's PCs will contain TPMs.

TPMs are important because they are the first, mass-marketed example of hardware-based security. And hardware-based security has substantive advantages over the software-only approach. (Critical security features of Microsoft's new operating system, Windows Vista [formerly codenamed "Longhorn"], which is due to ship in December 2006, will take advantage of the next generation of TPM technology, i.e. TPM 1.2.)

(A confession: For seven years I've been invested in a company that, among several others, may profit from the adoption of trusted computing. On the other hand, it may not. But, I wanted you to know of my potential conflict of interest.)

As long as you don't know about this whole topic of trusted computing, then your company will be content to purchase regular PCs that will continue to put me at risk.

Let's get intensely impersonal, shall we?

I want you to forget my name. That may sound overly dramatic. But I'm serious.

What I'm recommending is the creation of (what I will call) a "custnomer": a data alias or new "name" for that me that gets profiled by your computer systems.

At a minimum, this will mean that my customer records and data won't have my real name appended to them. There are too many thieves and scammers out there who are seeking to use my good name and the records attached to it. Grab your nearest CIO and Chief Privacy Officer (and maybe the Chief Security Officer, though that person is probably on Zoloft at present) by their lapels and strongly encourage them to begin in-depth research into the promising work on Extensible Resource Identifiers (XRI) and XRI Data Interchange.

The Daddy of XRI, Drummond Reed, is someone I consider a friend (although he may not feel quite the same, because I don't write that often). Drummond is, without question, the darned nicest and most patient technology visionary that you will ever come across. There isn't an ounce of ego in his dealings with us woefully common folk. This year, he has begun an off-again, on-again blog about digital identity and XRI-related issues.

Warning: XRI/XDI is not some obscure, trivial "tech thing" that will only be meaningful to those who mumble to themselves and spend half their lifetimes slaughtering innocents and evil-doers... virtually, that is. XRI/XDI has encoded within it is a simple, powerful idea that will come true over time and will change your business: "My private data is mine."

In addition, look into the "data anonymity" work of Latanya Sweeney, Assistant Professor, Institute for Software Research International at Carnegie-Mellon University.

Here's how Sweeney describes what she does:

 

Perhaps the biggest clash between technology and society involves privacy. The task of maintaining privacy and confidentiality in a globally networked, technically empowered society is quite difficult, tricky and fun.

Data privacy (or more precisely, data anonymity) is emerging as a new study within computer science that is the study of computational solutions for releasing information about entities (such as people, companies, governments) such that certain properties (such as identity) are controlled while the data remain practically useful. While these problems have been studied, in part, by statisticians and earlier computer scientists, their solutions have been rendered insufficient in today's technically empowered society. So, in data anonymity, we develop new approaches and tools for today's computational environment.

My colleagues and I (in the Laboratory for International Data Privacy, for which, I am the director) take a two-prong approach to data anonymity. On the one hand, we work as data detectives and on the other hand, we also work as data protectors."

 

The kicker: There may just be a business in here

I'm thinking that there's probably some trustworthy business entity—although, I'm hard-pressed to figure out which it might be—that could serve as my proxy. (Now, banks and/or credit card companies, before you leap to any conclusions, take a long look at your information assurance practices and see the part of this article about the Trusted Computing Group.)

I would willingly provide just enough information, credentials and data that authenticate who I am and which, say, establish my credit-worthiness to a "trusted relationship proxy": some government-certified, insured, audited, secure entity that would establish and manage the data version of "me" and would become the "gateway" to all (or many) of my most important business relationships. Think of this proxy as an agent who serves as a buffer between me and you.

This may be a bad idea or one that, in security circles, would be referred to as a "single point of failure." It's just a thought.

That's all I have for now. Thanks for your time. Oh, and please—don't write.

Best regards,

Chris Maher

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chris Maher is president of Fosforus, an Austin-based, business-to-business marketing, media, and interactive design firm. Reach him at CMaher1997@aol.com