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Ken Magill

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Internet Marketing and Your Local Bartender


By Ken Magill

In another life I was a bartender—two stints at different taverns and one at a private squash club. Little did I know at the time that I was practicing a form of behaviorally based marketing.

I didn’t know the names of a lot of the folks who frequented the taverns [I’ve always been terrible with names.]. But I knew what they drank. In my head I’d even call them by their drink rather than their names, even if I knew their names.

“Here comes Budweiser,” I’d say while reaching into the cooler for a Bud before the patron had even asked for it.

The customers always appreciated the personalized service. It made them feel important. Correction: It illustrated to them how important they were to me.

And guess what? All of the hazards privacy advocates claim exist in online behaviorally based marketing were in place in my relationships with my alcohol-swilling customers.

I knew what they drank, how much they drank, who was cheating on whom, who had a drinking problem, who wanted me to serve them alcohol-free beverages in secret so they wouldn’t get hassled by their hard-drinking friends—you name it.

I knew some people’s deepest, darkest secrets—or at least if they had any deeper and darker ones, I sure didn’t want to hear them. It is true that people tell their bartenders things they wouldn’t tell anyone else.

But protecting my customer’s privacy was paramount to me, even when their behavior wasn’t behavior I’d engage in myself.

When wives would call the bar looking for husbands who didn’t want to be found, I would cover my eyes with my hand and say: “I don’t see him.”

I also had a reputation for being fiercely protective of women. The moment I saw some guy bothering a woman who wanted to be left alone, I would put an end to it.

Sounds noble, yes? It wasn’t. It was a financially motivated act. I made sure women knew they could come in, even alone, and relax and enjoy themselves while I was on duty. And come in, they did. Countless women told me mine was the only bar they felt comfortable walking into alone. Predictably, the guys followed.

And so did the tips.

I made money by providing personalized service and protecting sensitive information. I knew if I didn’t protect people’s sensitive information, the money would stop.

Sound familiar?

If privacy advocates made similar demands of bartenders that they make of online behaviorally targeted advertisers, bartenders would have to present patrons with written privacy policies saying they’ll protect their customers’ secrets even though the financial incentives to do so are already in place.

The point is, merchants have engaged in behaviorally targeted selling since people started selling to one another. People have made purchases they wouldn’t necessarily want widely known for the same amount of time. Can you say “world’s oldest profession?”

Sellers who have sensitive information as a result of what they’re selling have a vested interest in protecting it. The emergence of the Internet as a marketing channel certainly hasn’t erased this ancient concept. 


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Terms: Feel free to be as big a jerk as you want, but don't attack anyone other than me personally. And don't criticize people or companies other than me anonymously. Got something crappy to say? Say it under your real name. Anonymous potshots and personal attacks aimed at me, however, are fine.

Posted by: Ken Magill
Date: 2011-11-03 06:37:45
Subject: Where the data came from is irrelevant

And your friend's case is an example. He received something he thought was actionable and contacted his lawyer--a huge over-reaction as far as I'm concerned, but nonetheless, an action that serves to bolster my point. Merchants with sensitive information have a vested interest in using it wisely. If they don't, bad things happen and business suffers. This doesn't mean everyone acts perfectly all the time. However, the mechanisms are already there to punish them if they don't.
Posted by: Mike Atkinson
Date: 2011-11-02 14:16:59

I don't know how they got his work address, and I do know that he contacted his attorney when it happened. How can a company lose business if there's no way to know where the data came from? That's not true in all cases but it's certainly true in some.
Posted by: Ken Magill
Date: 2011-11-02 14:09:02
Subject: Also

Sorry about the lack of paragraph breaks. I'v asked my vendor repeatedly to fix this problem.
Posted by: Ken Magill
Date: 2011-11-02 14:07:12
Subject: Financial incentive can't trump do no harm

They do harm, they lose business. It's that simple. A database is only useful if it's responsive. It's only responsive if people on it are getting offers they want and are not being offended. And something smells in that prescription drug story. I'm not saying you're bullshitting, but there's just something not right about it. I'm on more prescription drugs than you can imagine and I have never once received a piece of mail about any of them. Drug companies direct-market to doctors, not consumers. And how would they get his work address unless he supplied it to them?
Posted by: Mike Atkinson
Date: 2011-11-02 13:26:43

"the fact remains there is financial incentive to do no harm" If that's true, there are certainly competing incentives to make as much money as possible particularly for public companies and cases of bankruptcy. In many cases, the incentive to make money now completely trumps any incentive to do no harm. "and no one--not one single person--has been hurt by behaviorallt targeted marketing" A friend of mine received targeted advertising for a prescription drug. It was sent via postal mail to our office. The office manager commented upon how she didn't know that he had the condition that the drug treats. I would say that behavioral advertising usually doesn't harm anyone.
Posted by: Ken Magill
Date: 2011-11-01 15:27:47

The analogy may be imperfect, but the fact remains there is financial incentive to do no harm and no one--not one single person--has been hurt by behaviorallt targeted marketing.
Posted by: Jordan Cohen
Date: 2011-11-01 15:17:55
Subject: If only it was so simple

It'd be great if online privacy mirrored "how it works" in the brick-and-mortar world, and I often use offline as a baseline for understanding consumer expectations when it comes to online privacy. The reality is that online privacy advocates have legitimate concerns. Lets look at behavioral "remarketing" for example. If a guy at the bar told you he was planning on surprising his girlfriend with an engagement ring, and then she ends up walking into the bar - you probably wouldn't blow his spot and tell her that "hey your boyfriend is about to propose to you." Online advertising isn't so thoughtful: if the same guy looked up engagement rings on, and his sweatheart uses his computer later that day or evening only to be bombarded with a series of banners featuring Tiffany's engagement rings, his cover is blown. Surprise ruined. And this is a good surprise -- imagine when the example shifts to medications, politics, who-knows-what... Another example of offline/online privacy dissonance: BT across 3rd party web sites. It is one thing for my local bartender to know my name and what I like to drink -- but it'd be shocking and unsettling if I walked into a bar I've never been to and the bartender says "hey Jordan, here's your Dewar's on the rocks." This doesn't happen offline, but routinely occurs online. On- and offline privacy are fundamentally different, and "financial incentives" are not currently stopping some online marketers from making privacy faux pas. Just ain't that simple!
Posted by: Mike Atkinson
Date: 2011-11-01 15:15:26

Ken, You're s smart guy with a lot of insight, but here you are so full of shit that your eyes are brown. As a bartender, did you record all of your customers' drinking habits, sexual habits, sexual preferences, peccadilloes and lies into a database? Was this database a corporate asset subject to sale or theft without your customers ever being the wiser? This is not a quantitative difference alone, there is a huge qualitative difference in how information is collected, stored, protected and shared. Mike