There's a new class of internet companies that collect cookie data across websites and sell compiled personal data to advertisers. This means, for example, that Mazda can run banner ads on site X only to people who were looking at new cars on site Y.
In order for this to work, of course, the companies need to get site Y to secretly sell them huge bundles of personal surfing data. You can think that this is okay or not okay, that's not the point of my post.
Check out some of the language BlueKai uses on the page of their site addressed to consumers [I notice that the company has since changed the wording, which is certainly a good thing. Here's the original text]:
It's all about choice, reward, and privacy...
In return, you, the consumer, are rewarded with the 3C's: control, charity, and content...
Charity—It gets better! When marketers pay to access anonymous data from BlueKai, you will be rewarded with a credit to donate to the charity of your choice...
BlueKai's mission is to build the world's most comprehensive registry of online preferences that is dedicated to ensuring your anonymity and privacy.
Give me a break. Is this really BlueKai's mission? I doubt it. When marketers talk to consumers like this, it's no wonder consumers hate us and distrust us. Wouldn't it be refreshing if we just told consumers the truth? They could (but don't) say:
BlueKai makes money by help advertisers show you ads relevant to your behavior and interests. We harvest the information we need by paying sites for your cookie information... this money makes it more likely that the sites you visit have enough income to survive, without having to resort to even more intrusive ads. It also keeps companies from showing you totally irrelevant ads. Most people we talk to think this is a great deal all around.
If you don't want the ads you see online to be relevant, if you don't want us to keep your cookie information on file, all you have to do is click here and we'll banish you from our database. No, you shouldn't have to opt out of us using your personal data to make money, but hey, that's life.
The direct marketing industry has a long, troubled history of sneaking around, assuming permission they don't have and making it difficult for people to opt out. This has been shown again and again to be foolish and short-sighted.
It is not just an issue for direct marketers, of course. It turns out that being direct and honest is a scalable communications strategy.