Brandwashing and Privacy: A book review of Digital Destiny: New media and the future of democracy – On Data privacy day ..

Today is Data privacy day and hence an appropriate day to write this post.

As I mentioned in a previous post FTC complaint against Mobile marketing – An analysis , I have been reading the book Digital destiny by Jeff Chester with some interest. The book was an interesting read because it is not the usual blurb that many other books provide i.e. it offers a genuinely different perspective. It reminds me of a strategist from a Mobile Network Operator who mentioned that they read my blog(Open Gardens ) regularly within their organization because it provides a different perspective from one which the consultants/ media often feed it. In that sense, I recommend you read the book Digital Destiny. You may agree or disagree with some of it’s insights but it certainly makes you think. It is also well researched , for instance – pages 210 to 274 are ‘references’, which is good to see.

Although I have called this post as a ‘Book review’, I will focus only on one specific aspect of the book i.e. impact of media and brands(maybe I will do other blogs about different elements later). However, I am not qualified to discuss some areas of the book (ex chapters on the Powell doctrine etc). So, it will always be a narrow review. I also believe that the ideas raised in this book will gain in prominence on account of the new changes at policy level and the recession (which has caused us to question many of our institutions and the status Quo)

Finally, the review is based on my thoughts and insights to the ideas presented in the book – so I hope it contributes to the conversation i.e. I have listed some key ideas and then added my thoughts to these ideas – thereby adding to the analysis.


The book uses a term called ‘Brandwashing’, which indicates that most of the latest technology is driven by brands and the interests of the brands are not necessarily aligned with the interests of the customer. Hence, the notion that ‘We need brands and brands need us’ has to be tempered with the basic reality that the primary purpose of Brands is to sell. As media becomes rich and complex, brands seek to engage with us and to measure that engagement for maximising their revenue. Hence, a customer advocacy is needed to look after the interests of the people. This relates especially to the privacy domain.

Data and privacy/trust are two sides of the same coin. Advertisers need a lot of data to make their advertising more personalised (and by extension, to claim more money from the companies who use their advertising), but the acquiring of the data needs the customer to give up their privacy rights in the interests of the advertiser.


Consider the emphasis on ‘convergence’. If the media and advertisers were to indeed ‘join the dots’ between the various information elements left by us i.e. cookie crumbs of information in different media, then advertising becomes powerful and personalised. This benefits the advertiser especially in a converged media scenario(where the same provider owns the TV, landline, mobile subscriptions etc) – but this could lead to some questionable behaviour which could be currently legal but may soon be regulated. It could also lead to consumer backlash

I can explain a scenario as below:

I am a fan of the rock group ZZ Top . This has been on my blog (OpenGardens) for years. Now, consider this scenario. Many of the TV companies are exploring ways to ‘personalise’ TV advertising to the home. For instance, they seek to gain viewing preferences from set top boxes and other avenues and then (in an extreme scenario), to tailor the advertising to each home.

The question is: Which data elements can be used to tailor this advertising?

Consider the ZZ Top data element which can be obtained from an RSS feed from my blog. Now it is easy to combine three sets of data: The home address and my name which the Cable company has along with the RSS feed from my blog(which ties to my name) and the phone book/voter registration(as a confirmation of my address). Knowing these elements, the Cable TV can then ‘personalise’ the advertisement to tailor specifically to me i.e. show me an advertisement of the next ZZ Top concert in the commercial break on the TV/Cable.

Presumably, this makes the advertiser ‘happy’ since they are ‘personalising’ the advertisement to me – and I could even ‘engage’ with it by pressing a ‘Buy’ button(An advertising utopia!).

On the other hand, it could be seen a gross invasion of privacy and questionable ‘Big brother’ tactics. This ‘personalization and engagement’ could be made progressively worse in future based on the abundant availability of different datasets available to advertisers – all of which could be user to co-relate data elements from different data sets to gain new insights about us to ‘sell’ to us.

You could call this ‘Micropersuasion’ and indeed it raises some questions about the ethics of advertisements and engagement (although none of this behaviour would be seen to be illegal).

It also(in my mind) raises a genuine spectre of consumer backlash i.e. if I were to see many such ZZ Top ads, I would know that my TV is watching me and I would take action(such as change channel providers).


The overall theme of Jeff Chester’s book is that advertisers will push the envelope when it comes to feeding us their advertisements at the expense of privacy. Governments will also follow suit. I have been speaking of this issue before(Policy for the cloud Cloud computing, Policy, Privacy and empowering the user ) so I will not cover this aspect in detail here. Governments need to be involved in two ways: Creation of regulation that benefits consumers in addition to the advertisers especially in relation to new areas where regulation is sparse and consumers can be potentially exploited. Secondly, ensuring that the privacy rights of individuals are protected in the light of ever increasing encroachments from brands and advertisers.

At one level, we have laws such as the data protection laws in the UK. However, at another level, governments can be a part of the problem for instance the proposed law on ‘Data sharing’ in the UK.

Under the guise of ‘mass exchange of data can offer some benefits’(to advertisers and governments!), the UK government is proposing legislation (source the Telegraph web site) where data held by the police, the NHS, schools, the Inland Revenue, local councils and the DVLA could all end up in private hands, according to Privacy International. At the same time, information gathered by companies including hotel registrations, bank details and telecommunications data could be transferred to the Government as part of the provisions of the Coroner’s and Justice Bill, it is claimed. The campaign group admits the “mass exchange of personal information has the potential to deliver some benefit”

Targeting minorities and ethnic groups

Yet another grey area is targeting minorities and ethnic groups. Legally, there is no law that prevents the targeting of specific ethnic groups by advertisers. In fact, it can be profitable to do so as per the benefits from the ad network JumpTap which predicted that Hispanic-centric campaigns would quadruple this year, with revenue increasing at least 20% in the segment

There may be indeed nothing wrong in selling Hispanic oriented content, music etc targeting a specific demographic – but change the model slightly and you get some serious privacy concerns. For instance, South Asian population is genetically susceptible to Diabetes. Does this mean that Diabetes medication advertisements should be targeted to South Asians in the UK? Again, this is not too difficult to do using current technology and increasing convergence and data availability.

Where do we draw the line?

For many of us who travel to the United states, we see drug companies advertising medication on Television. This is illegal in many countries – especially in Europe. The message from the advertisements seems to be that ‘Call your General practitioner(GP) and ask him to recommend our drugs’. Broadcasting drug company advertisements on Television raise the ethical issue of the advertising company influencing the doctor’s judgement for commercial reasons(selling their products). In many countries, this is an ethical question and under regulatory scrutiny.

Pushing the boundaries – Consumer kids

Yet another area is protection of minors especially in an era dominated by Mobile and social networking.

Social networks, mobile and other emerging mediums offer the possibility of pushing the boundaries of advertising to target kids. Again, this practise is not illegal(yet!) but it is certainly morally questionable.

As per the Guardian, the book Consumer kids introduces a case study: seven-year-old Sarah, who has been recruited through to act as a brand ambassador for Mattel and promote her Barbie MP3 player to schoolfriends. In exchange for keeping the sought-after shiny pink gadget, her job description includes creating a fansite where she blogs about the product, taking pictures of her sales missions and posting them back to Dubit, where she is rewarded.

Impulse purchasing

As more and more mobile devices are able to purchase goods and services, extending the above discussion, we enter into the realm of the ethics of impulse purchasing. Impulse purchasing is not un-ethical in itself. Supermarkets for instance regularly encourage impulse purchases though product placements.

However, with a mobile device though, new problems could arise.

Consider the example of the phone ‘reminding’ you to buy a related product. This would be based on ‘opt-in’ so it’s not SPAM. So far, so good. At worst a minor irritation – at best a useful recommendation.

Now extend this further. Knowing the person, object they are looking at(based on location – for example they are standing in front of a car show room) and their credit history(available on the Web), can we ‘sell’ a ‘One click’ loan? – to ‘engage’ with the person and ‘encourage’ them to buy the car?

Legally and technologically it is not banned. However, morally and ethically it is dubious. Note that all this precise engagement and personalization can be enabled by co-relating different datasets

Can advertising dictate content?

To what extent does advertising dictate content? It is an intriguing question and most media channels will deny that their content is influenced by advertising. However, there are indicators that this may be the case based on the limited and advertising led range of content. For instance, advertisers would favour entertainment led content since it places the viewer in a more receptive mood to buy in contrast to the more serious documentary based content(which does not)


The question of profiles is also interesting and raises some questions.

For instance consider the abstract of the following patent filed by Google(source search engine journal)

Results based personalization of advertisements in a search engine, was filed yesterday by Google and is described in the abstract as : Personalized advertisements are provided to a user using a search engine to obtain documents relevant to a search query. The advertisements are personalized in response to a search profile that is derived from personalized search results. The search results are personalized based on a user profile of the user providing the query. The user profile describes interests of the user, and can be derived from a variety of sources, including prior search queries, prior search results, expressed interests, demographic, geographic, psychographic, and activity information.

Such a profile would appear to be recording all our activities in cyberspace and tying them individually to us(to be used for the purposes of advertising). This practise does raise privacy concerns

On the other side are anonymised profiles which seek to anonymise personal data and then create ‘templates’ of user behaviour which may be used to predict future behaviour based on past behaviour. For instance, it may be used to identify in advance who will Churn from a social network. In this case, rather than getting an individual profile, we get audience segments. Audience segments are not tied to individuals(of course in a very small segment – for example a segment of One – they could be)

What about the mobile platform?

Here I add my own insights(i.e. not from Jeff Chester’s book)

The mobile operators generally have a good reputation for managing data and preventing misuse from advertisers. Misleading promotions like Crazy Frog ringtone in the UK were not created by Telecom Operators but rather by Mobile marketing companies.

Certainly, most Operators take privacy seriously

Over time, Operators and the industry will face new challenges they will work with new forms of advertising as I have indicated in the discussion above.

Whatever the direction we choose, I believe that ‘mobile’ due to it’s unique, personalised nature will have to go beyond ‘Opt-in’ and may need higher standards beyond statutory regulation based on moral and ethical integrity with a view to protect consumer interests

The future of privacy

The future of privacy will lie in customer empowerment. I have mentioned some of the mechanisms before in the blog FTC complaint against Mobile marketing – An analysis and they include

a) Anonymization

b) Revocation

c) Vendor relationship management and

d) Full disclosure


The book raised some interesting questions for me and did cause me to question the mantra of free, engagement, brands benefiting society etc.

Perhaps I had also been brandwashed!

But in any case, I expect that the issues raised will be increasingly an important part of the debate going forward. For marketers, the temptation to treat social media as a ‘channel’ is strong along with the desire to retrofit the new world of communication to the familiar world of Brands, traffic, audiences, growth etc. However, this is not in the consumer’s interest.

The pendulum of legislation will shift from an emphasis on brands to empowering the consumer .. and I think that discussion is just beginning.

The book again is Digital destiny: New media and the future of democracy


  1. Brian Jacobs says:

    Why is it automatically assumed that brands, and brand ads or messages are by definition always against the interest of the consumer?
    A lot of these privacy points are of course extremely valid – but wouldn’t you (to take your own example) like to be contacted about future ZZ Top concerts within your neighbourhood? Isn’t this a benefit to you (as well as to the promotors, the band and the venue)?
    Regulators often over-regulate, we all know that. We are not living in a black and white world, and sometimes commercial messages benefit the consumer. Granted – sometimes they don’t, and sometimes abuses of trust can occur, but this isn’t always a one-way street.