TV Viewers to Madison Avenue: Please quit driving drunk on adtech

Doc Searls
3 min readApr 14, 2016

So here’s a story by @LowBrowKate in AdAge about how Hillary and Bernie are using “addressable advertsing” for “precision targeting” of potential voters. She explains,

…the campaigns provide a list of the individual voters they want to target to Cablevision or satellite providers DirecTV and Dish. That list is matched against each provider’s customer database and ads are served to the matching households. Because voter data includes actual names and addresses, the same information the TV providers have for billing purposes, they readily can match up the lists.

Speaking as a Dish Network customer — and as a sovereign human being — I don’t want to be an “addressable target” of any advertising — and I already feel betrayed.

I don’t care what measurable results “addressable” or “precision” targeting get for those who practice it. The result that matters is that I’m pissed to know that my provider has sold me out to advertisers putting crosshairs on my ass — and worse, on my family’s. And I’m sure the same goes for every other viewer who gets creeped out when they see an ad on TV that is obviously just for them and not for everybody watching the show.

I also don’t care that this kind of thing is common as dirt now. It is simply wrong, for the same reason customers have always been right. (Note: “The customer is always right” has been variously credited to Harry Gordon Selfridge, John Wanamaker and Marshall Field, below:

Marshall Field , along with Harry Gordon Selfridge, John Wanamaker, Feargal Quinn, Joe Colombe (Trader Joe) and other great retailers have all been guided by the actual wants and needs of customers. All of them would have been appalled and disgusted by today’s digital surveillance norms. They also would have considered the practice utterly unnecessary.

It should be obvious by now that people hate being tracked like animals and shot with digital blow-guns by advertisers. The feedback has been loud and clear.

First the market (you know: customers) responded with Do Not Track, which the ad industry mocked and ignored. Then the market installed ad blockers and tracking protection in numbers massive enough to comprise the largest boycott in human history. (More than 200 million people were doing ad blocking alone, by last June.) Again, the industry didn’t listen, and instead went to war with its own consumers and mocked the their choice as a “fad.”

Here is a fact: people value their privacy, safety and time infinitely more than whatever they might get from commercial messages packed around the content they actually demand.

Here is another: anonymity is a form of privacy. One of the graces of watching TV is being anonymous, as both a private individual and part of a crowd.

Advertising respected both those facts before it got body-snatched by direct marketing, which is descended from junk mail and a cousin of spam.

Now is the time to respect the difference again, and separate the wheat of respectful advertising from the chaff of disrespectful “addressable targeting” and other junk mail methods that were alien to Madison Avenue before it got drunk on “digital.”

Make no mistake: addressable targeting is disrespectful to both its targets and the very media respectful advertising has supported for the duration. For a gut-check on that, ask if anybody wants it. Make it opt-in. Don’t just take advantage of whatever data collection has been done, surely without express permission from individual customers.

Here is another fact the industry needs to face: people have tools for safeguarding their privacy now, and they’ll get more, whether the industry likes it or not. In fact, the more precisely advertising invades and violates people’s personal spaces, the faster people will acquire the protections they need.

What’s at stake now for the industry is the survival of whatever remains of advertising’s value as a contribution to business and culture. The only reason the industry can’t see that fact, which ought to be obvious, is that it’s driving drunk on digital kool-aid.

Time to sober up.

Bonus reading: Bob Hoffman, Don Marti, Jason Kint, Dave Carroll, yours truly.

Bonus opportunity to participate in moving from blocking all advertising to welcoming the respectful kind: VRM Day and IIW, the week after next, at the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley.

Originally published at on April 14, 2016.



Doc Searls

Author of The Intention Economy, co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto, Fellow of CITS at UCSB, alumnus Fellow of the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard.