A biased attack on cookie-based advertising

I suppose you could make a case that we’ve had this coming, but I’m perplexed by the Wall Street Journal’s assault on the Web advertising industry. I’ve been saying for years that the future of advertising (and therefore, media) is data, and I’ve written so much about it that a newspaper report of such venom is really quite shocking. It’s like somebody at the paper had been sleeping for ten years and woke up to discover it’s the year 2010!

“They’re doing WHAT?”

It doesn’t take a linguistic genius to study the language of this “series” in order to determine its bias, because the articles so straightforwardly attack the concept of cookie tracking as evil. No ifs, ands or buts about it. The editors of the paper want anybody involved in this to be on the defensive.

The headline: “Sites Feed Personal Details To New Tracking Industry” is deliberately misleading, for while there are certainly some cookies and cookie makers who do untoward things, they are an insignificant minority. To use this scare tactic as a headline does a gross disservice to those working hard to practice tracking with integrity. It’s broad brush demagoguery.

Shame on the editor who wrote that headline. And this one: “The Web’s New Gold Mine: Your Secrets.” Secrets? Really?

But it doesn’t stop at headlines. The series uses deliberately pejorative terms like “surveillance” and “spying” and interviews carefully-selected and unsuspecting individuals — including a teenager — to make the case that this is horrible, and, one assumes, that we’ve got to do something about this (or we’ll all die). The series has been effective, too, for 61% of readers in a poll describe themselves as “very alarmed” about this.

Look, I think we’re heading for some standard-setting here, but my fear is that Congress will throw the baby out with the bath water. Human beings are notorious for taking a mile when an inch is offered, and I suppose that if nobody does anything, those eager to make a buck will determine it’s okay. The problem with the Journal’s series is that it baits people with the worst case. It’s so slanted, frankly, that it’s vertical.

Doc Searls sees it differently, and with good cause. He thinks “the tide turned” with the publishing of the series, and he may be right. People are frankly tired of “marketing,” weary of trying to hide from the carpet bombing that we in the U.S. experience from the world of advertising. It’s friggin everywhere! Somebody’s always trying to tap us on the shoulder and sell us something, and now we’re using the tools of technology to escape all that. Sadly, our desire to escape only results in the heat being turned up, and so it goes.

The energy fueling this escape is what the Journal is hoping to tap with its series on tracking.

In the end, we’re going to have to decide as a people if tracking behavior for advertising is all right or not. It’s an amazing aspect of our hyperconnected universe and one that we’re just beginning to understand, and my warning to anybody in looking at this is to remember that hyperconnectivity is a new thing. We are more public that we ever were, simply by being connected, and the extent to which we want everything (and everybody) else to be public while we remain private is a reality gap that will lead to much frustration downstream.

It really doesn’t help the matter whatsoever to have a news organization like the Wall St. Journal damaging the opportunity for useful discussion of the matter for the sake of selling newspapers. Besides, if tracking is somehow disallowed, then the only kind of advertising that will be viable is the old fashioned kind that the Journal sells.

(See: Senator Rockefeller’s Folly below)


  1. Consumer and privacy groups, EU and US officials and the public at large (based on the UC Berkeley/UPenn analysis done last Fall) are all correctly alarmed about the massive stealth collection of data for online profiling, tracking and targeting. The WSJ series brings into the open what the industry has tried to hide from the public–including FTC officials. Frankly, I hope the WSJ will continue to expose more of the commercial surveillance process, including greater focus on real time targeting exchanges, predictive behavioral targeting, neuromarketing, and social media data mining. It should report on how online and offline data collection are increasingly tied together to forge powerful ways to market financial and health products especially. The online marketing industry has largely lost touch with something profoundly important–one must balance the interest to generate revenue with the civil liberties needs of a democratic society. We can do both–but only if the ad, marketing and data collection industry leaders realize that there’s an important balance to strike, that will benefit us all.

  2. The pejorative language is a bit over the top, but it’s a reflection of the fact that most people don’t think about, don’t want to think about or simply don’t know about the extent of tracking of their online behavior.

    The future of advertising is obviously in data, but more consumer awareness and understanding of the costs and benefits of “surveillance” must factor into a healthy, long-term content provider/content consumer/advertiser relationship. This dynamic is extremely young and still being worked out, much as you describe “hyperconnectivity.”

    In short, the tantalizing headline and SHOCK (faux or overblown as it may be) represent a pendulum swung too far in favor of data collection and mining (whether consumer ignorance is willful or not).


  1. […] unsophisticated, and anachronistic about the basics of the modern media business.” Similarly, Terry Heaton found the Journal’s coverage biased and behind the curve: “It’s like somebody at […]

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