Tobacco Company Market Research Program Violates Consumersí Privacy
Originally Published in the DM News Ė February 22, 2004
Letís face it. As consumers, weíve run out of places to hide. It seems like no matter where we go, thereís a company who wants to know more about us so they can do a better job of selling us something. Frankly, I donít mind. In fact, I tend to be fairly generous with my personal information. Particularly when Iím dealing with nationally recognized brands. Maybe thatís why I found the following data collection program so unsettling.
Last Friday night, I went out to my favorite local watering hole to listen to some music. Once inside the establishment, I noticed an attractive young lady holding what looked like a clipboard, speaking with a few of my fellow patrons. Iíll call her Mary. I watched Mary for a little while, and noticed that many of the people she spoke with appeared to be giving her their credit card in return for a small gift. So I concluded that Mary was selling something. And judging by the number of patrons who gave Mary their card, it must have been a good deal.
After a few minutes, it was my turn to chat with Mary. I asked her what she was selling. I was surprised to hear that Mary wasnít selling anything at all. She worked for a large tobacco company, and wanted to know if Iíd participate in a brief survey in exchange for a free lighter. While Iím not a smoker, I said Ďyesí. I figured that the survey was anonymous and that maybe it had something to do with the anti-smoking legislation enacted in New York recently.
I was wrong on both counts. Mary asked for my driverís license so she could scan it into the clipboard sized computer she was holding. I asked Mary why her company needed my driverís license. She said that the company wanted to ensure that I was 21 years old, and they also wanted my name and address Ďfor their recordsí. Mary had no idea why they needed my name and address, and she wasnít particularly accommodating when I asked her to call her supervisor and find out. After a moment of polite chitchat, she moved on to the next person.
Mary could not understand why I was reluctant to hand over my driverís license to her. After all, by doing so I would be rewarded with a shiny lighter. So whatís the big deal, right?
Trust me, Mary. This IS a big deal.
In exchange for a $2 lighter, several bar patrons were providing their names and addresses to Mary. Of course, thatís not all they were providing. A New York State DL contains the date of birth, height, eye color, sex, organ donor status, a digitized signature, a personally identifiable DL #, and most importantly, the driverís picture. And people were providing this information without giving it much thought.
I wonder if my fellow patrons realize that what they were giving away was far more valuable than a lighter. Of course, people have the right to provide their personal information to any organization theyíd like. I just wish theyíd ask more questions before doing so.
A few people that night asked me if what the tobacco company was doing was legal. There is a privacy law called the Driver's Privacy Protection Act of 1994. (DPPA) It was originally enacted to keep States from selling diverís license records. Some legal experts feel that the DPPA could be used to contest driver's license scanning by companies conducting market research. However, the practice not been challenged in court yet.
There are also a handful of guidelines for responsible data collection that were established by the U.S. Government over 30 years ago. These guidelines have been restated time and time again by the FTC, and are generally accepted by the direct marketing industry as acceptable practices. Basically, the guidelines state that companies should obtain a consumerís informed consent prior to collecting any personally identifiable data. In other words, a company should let consumers know they are collecting their personal information, what they plan to do with it, and how long they plan to keep it. And the consumer must give the company express or implicit permission for the company to collect his or her data.
I have no idea what happens to the data that Mary scans into her computer. Maybe the tobacco company keeps all or some of the data. Perhaps they dispose of it entirely. Mary couldnít tell me, and the tobacco company didnít return my calls.
The purpose of this article is not to condemn this practice on legal grounds. Letís concede that it is legal for a company to collect data in this manner. However, just because something is technically legal doesnít mean that it is ethical. And sending attractive twenty something representatives into places where patrons are known to have diminished capacities is not market research - itís bad business.
Why is it bad business? Collecting data in this way plays into the fears of consumers, whom we all know are increasingly wary of providing personal information to companies. The specter of a company putting together a profile that combines age with smoking habits and selling that information to life insurance companies is quite real in many consumer minds. And if the company collecting the data isnít telling the consumer what will happen with their data, the consumer mind is free to think the worst.
The net result is that when a company is not completely open with a consumer regarding their data collection practices, they make it less likely that the consumer will give up their information to the next company who asks. And that makes life harder for the rest of the consumer marketing industry.
Moreover, how valid is information collected under these circumstances? Mary was surveying bar patrons long after midnight on a Friday evening. Itís pretty likely that some of the respondents were under the influence. Is the tobacco company relying upon the accuracy of these responses to help them achieve their marketing objectives?
Think about it this way. ĎNude celebrityí websites also ask for driverís license or credit card information Ďso that they may verify ageí. Does any legitimate business want their data collection strategies to be lumped into that category?
The political climate has changed dramatically over the past few years. The national do not call list and Can-Spam Act are the most recent examples of the Government stepping in when self-regulation wasnít effective. These types of data collection practices are an invitation for the Government to step in. And if the Government gets involved, nobody in the industry is going to be happy about it. Think about the total cost to your organization of the recent state and federal SPAM legislation. Why wait until the Government gets involved? Letís end this practice right now.
Sound marketing programs build consumerís trust. They foster a relationship between a company and a consumer. Is this data collection program good business? You tell meÖ