An apology… and some thoughts on Phorm?

One of the issues that I imagine my colleagues continually face is that over time my views on topics can change – sometimes quite considerably. This leads to scenarios where people ask for my view one day only to find I may have reconsidered my opinion the next. While I’m sure this can be highly frustrating, from my perspective this arises due to the simple fact that I may have read around a topic in a little more detail and am therefore logically drawn to slightly different conclusions.

I wish I could say that this was the case with the huge furore that has surrounded Phorm. For those of you who aren’t aware, Phorm is a technology company that is trying to innovate some technology to target advertising at visitors to sites on the basis of their browsing habits. Having sat through a presentation from Phorm as someone working for a media planning and buying shop, (I’ve now declared my interest in this topic), my initial reaction was that this was a fantastic development – both from the perspective of the advertiser and the browser. One of the oft quoted sayings in advertising is that 80% of advertising is wasted, while only 20% is actually effective. Phorm or more properly the AIX network, promised to deliver relevant and highly targeted advertising to a group of individuals ‘interested’ in the advertisers product or service.

From my own personal viewpoint, this seemed like the dawn of a new age. If any blue chip brand advertisers who happen to work for the likes of Proctor and Gamble, (is that how you spell it), or Unilever, happen to read this, please take note: whatever the circumstance, I am not interested in the daily trials and tribulations of the various affairs on Cleaner Close – or for that matter (as I write) the vitamins I could buy for half price from Hollands & Barrett.

Now I know these are both TV adverts, but this is an area  where I thought the web could really ‘deliver’ on its potential to better service site users. The opportunity to see advertising targeted around your interests and browsing habits – delivered right to you. I guess I was just being really naive. The privacy outcry that arose was quite simply amazing. I know that this was partly the result of  Phorm having allegedly been associated with spyware in a prior incarnation and ‘secret’ BT trials during the summer of 2007. But surely this was just a massive overreaction? The prospect of having relevant advertising shown to me as I browsed websites seemed to be to be one of the lesser evils we have to contend with on a daily basis. Particularly when we consider:

  •  How many times I’m caught on CCTV everyday
  • That my purchases at Tesco are analysed to such an extent that they now send me highly targeted grocery coupons and financial offers on a regular basis
  • That each time I read and interact with my email all the links are invariably tracked – (so that they know exactly what I am interested in).

Don’t get me wrong. Some of the examples I give above, such as the prevalence of CCTV, I don’t have a problem with. Unfortunately we now live in a society that I actually like the fact that the daily walk from my office to the train station late at night is under continual surveillance, (well maybe – and anyway if you knew where my office was located you would likely agree). I just do not see what the problem was with a service that anonymously kept tabs on what I was interested in and served me relevant advertising as a result.  

Some of the arguments, that people hate advertising and don’t want to be exposed to it in any shape or form are spurious.  - How do people expect a lot of these sites to pay for themselves? If people were prepared to subscribe to sites it wouldn’t be an issue – sites could do without the revenue they derive from advertising. 

If anyone has an obvious answer to this – please let me know! Given how happy we all are to let companies track us through email, I just think this is all a total overeaction!

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