Is Profiling A Form Of Subliminal Advertising?

Earlier this week, when privacy advocates once again took their fight against online profiling to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC), they brought the specter of subliminal advertising along with them.

While it has been reported that privacy advocates asked the commission to label online profiling as an “inherently deceptive” trade practice, they also charged that companies are using this detailed information to develop a new kind of subliminal ad strategy.

However, advertisers that use such programs claim that these new charges are groundless and are simply the newest tactic being used to prod the FTC into action against them.

Profiling Not Subliminal Advertising

Although the Association of American Advertising Agencies admits that consumers become part of a marketer’s database every time they make an 800 call or fill out a warranty form, it also denies that such information is used to transmit subliminal messages.

Subliminal advertising was exposed in the 1950s, when some TV commercials were discovered to be transmitting split-second images that were designed to stimulate a viewer’s desire for a certain product. For example, during a soft drink commercial, an advertiser might have flashed the message “I’m thirsty” without the viewer realizing it.

While this practice caused a great deal of controversy, there are no laws against it. However, the FTC has taken the position that any subliminal ad that causes a consumer to unconsciously alter their normal behavior could constitute a deceptive or unfair practice.

Profiling Primes The Pump

Privacy advocates hope to convince the FTC that every time an unwary consumer goes online and is immediately inundated with banners based on their profile, they are actually being subliminally prompted to buy something — and therefore deceived.

Even though I find myself in agreement with Internet privacy advocates on most issues, I think these charges are truly out of line.

I will concede that online ads and e-mails that are prompted by information culled without the individual’s knowledge are unethical — but not illegal.

Additionally, if I’m on a Web site and all the ads suddenly offer me products and services I’m interested in, what harm has been done — other than priming the pump?

I much prefer this scenario to being force fed ads about products and services in which I have absolutely have no interest.

Misguided Strategy

The reality is, I am afraid that by suggesting that profiling is akin to subliminal advertising, privacy advocates have blundered by minimizing the real issue: The need for consumer authorization before the collection of such profiling information is allowed.

What do you think? Let’s talk about it.

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