Can Customer Enlightenment Save Digital Marketing As We Know It?

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A new report from the University of Pennsylvania is looking at current digital marketing practices, specifically in regards to personal data and the concept of “informed consent” between the individual user and a company. The fact that the average American may not fully understand the intricacies of first-party data, third-party data, or how marketers use that data isn’t necessarily shocking, but the report’s conclusion for a “paradigm shift” highlights just how much of a problem that lack of understanding is.

“They found that the great majority of Americans don’t understand the fundamentals of internet marketing practices and policies, and that many feel incapable of consenting to how companies use their data,” wrote Hailey Reissman. “As a result, the researchers say, Americans can’t truly give informed consent to digital data collection.”

More than 2,000 Americans were surveyed in the report, titled “Americans Can’t Consent To Companies’ Use of Their Data.” Not only did 80% say they have little control about how companies learn about them, 80% also agreed that what can be learned about them through their online behavior could harm them.

“These and related discoveries from our survey paint a picture of an unschooled and admittedly incapable society that rejects the internet industry’s insistence that people will accept tradeoffs for benefits and despairs of its inability to predictably control its digital life in the face of powerful corporate forces,” the report said. “At a time when individual consent lies at the core of key legal frameworks governing the collection and use of personal information, our findings describe an environment where genuine consent may not be possible.”

Reissman’s article discusses the idea of “informed consent” within the context of the medical field. Before agreeing or disagreeing to go through with a procedure, for instance, a patient should have an understanding of what a doctor is recommending as well as all possible risks and benefits. For that principle to be applied to marketing and opt-in or opt-out choices, it assumes that users understand all that could happen with their data and that they’ve then given consent for that to happen.

Participants in the study were given 17 true/false statements to gauge what researchers called their internet navigational knowledge. 

One statement, for example, read, “When a website has a privacy policy, it means the site will not share my information with other websites or companies without my permission.” In that instance, 44% correctly said the statement was false, 33% incorrectly said the statement was true, and 23% said they didn’t know. 

As the research spells out, that 44% that were correct translates to less than half the adult population understanding what the phrase “privacy policy” means, not to mention that “many privacy policies state that they do share, in fact, and even sell such information.”

“From there,” the study said, “the table shows a slide toward increasing collective ignorance.” Taken altogether, 77% of all those surveyed got somewhere between 0 and 9 answers correct out of 17.

Source: Report “Americans Can’t Consent to Companies’ Use of Their Data.” Turow, Lelkes, Draper, and Waldman. (via

“The vast majority … would have received an F in most American classrooms,” Reissman wrote, “and a lone single person would have gotten an A.”

In their concluding remarks, the researchers said they believe consent, be it an opt-in or an opt-out, should not be part of the data collection process. “Our data indicate that large proportions of Americans don’t distinguish between first party and other data trackers; they don’t want any data taken from them as they try to eke benefits from the internet.”

The researchers do recognize the benefits that users get in ad targeting, including sales information and coupons. But ultimately, they make the suggestion to policymakers that, if an advertising-based model based on consumer interests is to be retained, they “restrict it to contextual advertising.”

“Policymakers could permit a system where companies can target people based only on the context in which advertisers find customers in the moment — on a website for cars, an app about travel, a supermarket aisle with diapers, or a video closely associated with a set of interests — without allowing the marketers to share or keep any history of consumer connections to those contexts.”

Additionally, the researchers questioned how valuable many of the rights-based privacy laws have been, as they “still require individuals to understand and process information in privacy policies and terms of service at scale.” 

“They require knowledge and a belief that companies will genuinely listen to their requests — that is, the opposite of the confusion and resignation we have found across the U.S. population.”


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