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Yow: Senate Commerce Chair Calls Marketing 'Lethal'

12/24/13

By Ken Magill

It has to be one of the great ironies of American politics.

The chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation hates arguably the best thing to happen to commerce since the invention of the credit card and possibly the introduction of currency.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) knows data-driven marketing is evil. He can’t prove it. In fact he hasn’t a shred of evidence to back his assumption up.

But he just knows it’s evil.

“This affects anybody. Everybody. … I can’t prove it’s wrong, but there’s something lethal about it,” he said during a privacy witch hunt conducted in Washington last week. “There’s something unfair about it. If somebody is poor or less educated, and this is my life; I come from West Virginia, they’re stigmatized. They have to live with it. The system is stacked against them. And a lot of people are making a lot of money out of it.”

In the past 15 years or so, worldwide commerce essentially got a brand new formula-one engine in the form of astonishingly effective online and offline behavioral data. My wife’s a media buyer. I’ve witnessed it. And Rockefeller wants to pour water in its fuel tank.

Rockefeller warned so-called data-brokers Acxiom, Experian and Epsilon that he was coming after them to find out exactly what data they collect and who they sell it to.

The thing missing from last week’s hearing was the “hearing” part. Rockefeller wasn’t hearing anything. He was accusing. He had his mind made up going in, and nothing anybody said was going to change it.

What the rest of us see as a revolution in the use of information to help fuel voluntary, value-for-value transactions, Rockefeller sees as unscrupulous marketers using people’s vulnerabilities to maximize profits to the detriment of the weak.

“This is segmenting Americans,” said Rockefeller. “It is pre-predicting what will happen to them by virtue of the circumstances in which they fall. And all the research has been done to put them in that situation so they [marketers] can control how they market and maximize their profits and maybe end up giving [less desirable customers] a horrible experience to that consumer. …

“I hate that. I am personally revolted by that. I’ve seen it in the treatment of coal miners and their safety. I’ve seen it in every aspect of life in the state where I come from and living abroad. … I think it’s a dark underside of American life where people make a lot of money and cause a lot of people to suffer even more and therefore, have even lower self esteem, which is not the America we want.”

Rockefeller’s claim of standing up for the little guy is laudable. But to compare the use of data for marketing to coal-mine operators ignoring safety issues to increase profits is beyond ludicrous.

And it apparently hasn’t occurred to Rockefeller that lists of people who are disadvantaged economically can help marketers reach them more efficiently with products and services to improve their lives.

Yes, some companies prey on the economically disadvantaged. I am no fan of payday loan operations. Likewise, I do not like rent-to-own stores. Both enable bad financial decisions.

But unless we decided as a society to outlaw them, they should be able to buy lists of prospects like any other business.

Duct tape is an incredible invention. Its uses seem practically endless. It helped save Apollo 13, for Pete’s sake. You can even make wallets and tablet cases with it. You can also bind people’s arms and legs and cover their mouths with it to make it easier to kill them.

But we don’t blame 3M because duct tape can be used to make murder easier.

We go after the murderers.

Rockefeller is doing the equivalent of going after 3M because some people use duct-tape in the commission of heinous crimes. And judging by last week’s hearing, nothing anyone says will deter him.

That a man who thinks like Rockefeller chairs the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation is chilling.

Fortunately, he has said he won’t seek another term in 2014. Maybe we can ride him out. But then knowing Congress, there will be another anti-marketing buffoon to take his place.

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