TOC Global warning: whither bigger brotherly love? Your Turn

Quick! You still have a chance "to win one of two Mont Blanc Meisterstuck Doué Sterling Silver rollerball pens" (*). This incredible offer by the Financial Times ends on midnight July 31st.

My first thought in reading about it was that Martin Lukes (1) had received the ultimate accolade: a two page spread in the FT. Who else could declare "We [...] are aware that our readers are our most important resource"? If you fancied yourself a client, you got your comeuppance. You merely supply free fodder for the advertisers, the real clients. "By way of thanks for completing and returning this questionnaire, every reader completing a questionnaire will be entered into a prize draw". Le style, c'est l'homme. Especially since what appears on the first page to be the questionnaire is not complete without the personal identification requested on the verso. Martin Lukes, you sleazy fellow, you!

To clear the air, I went to hear Dr Simon Levin talk on mathematical models in ecology and economics (**). What struck me was how he illustrated the benefits of localization. Put kites and doves together and kites drive doves to extinction before disappearing themselves. On a global scale, disaster follows. But let the competition occur locally, within multiple adjacent territories, and suddenly doves and kites can achieve a sustainable balance. Kites still kill doves but, with the right parameters, there are always enough kite-free niches for doves to escape to and reproduce before kites find about them.

It does not take much imagination to feel like a dove and picture Martin to be the kite. I am indeed Martin's "most important resource". He wants to eat me. But in keeping with Dr Simon Levin's localized model, Martin needs to learn more about me such as daily habits and usual haunts. The FT questionnaire will help him achieve this objective. It asks about sex and age, education and employment, income and fortune. It even inquires about whether I particularly read the FT on Monday (Q3) and how many times I fly (Q31). Not to forget, for the chance to win a rollerball pen at the roulette, my name, address and email.

It is hard indeed to reconciliate this questionnaire with the promise of a better service. A few weeks ago (2) the FT's editor rightly stressed the nature of a great newspaper: gather hard facts, put them in context, i.e. on a daily basis express the meaningful news. If more readers read the FT on Mondays of all days, would there be more news on Mondays? Does my flying pattern like the classic butterfly fluttering in Brazil (3) affect, if not the weather, at least the Stock Exchange in London?

It is much easier to see how the FT can process my answers for the benefits of advertising. Surely if there are more readers on Mondays, ad rates can be increased for that day of the week. And if the FT were contemplating or reviewing some marketing tie-in with the OneWorld airline alliance, readers' flight statistics would be a great help.

Mind. I do not deny the FT the right to better serve its advertisers. Its economic model rests on its ability to pay part of Martin's creator's salary through the selling of ads I hardly recall. It's a fair deal. I simply object to hypocrisy. Especially when it is compounded with the usual drivel about confidentiality. There is nothing exceptional about the FT. As everyone in the United States, my mailbox overflows with so-called privacy notices. Look for the pattern: "We will not transfer your personal data to organizations outside the [..] group, except to...".

  • besides its CEO, who knows the full extent of the FT group? Last time I looked it held no less than Penguin books and the French Les Echos, among others. In the hands of marketers, "group" is as ominous as its membership is hard to figure.
  • as if the group were not big enough, brace yourself now for the exceptions. For a fee, a lawyer can normally turn anyone into an exception. For the FT, you need to be a "third party supplier". How hard is it to become one if you offer to pay instead of trying to being paid?
The trouble with this way of doing business is twofold:
  • it is a form of social engineering, the art of getting confidential data with the cooperation of unsuspecting victims as perfected by spammers and hackers alike
  • owning thus large databases of confidential information, corporate big brothers often engage in mutually profitable relationships
    Having over more than twenty years received a forest worth of junk mail about Citicorp products tied to American Airlines' frequent flyer program, I can see the advantage for the FT to share its questionnaire with airlines with flights to or from London.
Beware of Dr Simon Levin's warning though. If advertisers can legally share personal data which should be one's own property, governments and lawyers are not far behind. As Big Brothers get together, they break the isolation of each territory. If the trend is not reversed, we risk a crash by the whole wide world population of doves first and then of kites.

Once again I want to stress that it ought not to be that way.
  • if the FT has already segmented its readership and wanted to count say how many "City bankers", "World travelling executives" or "European minded non European residents" are included, it could easily do so online without having to gather any individual profile data, e.g. by using ePrio's services
  • if the FT actually needed to find what best segmentation describes its readership, it could analyze a sample population. Such a scientific sample, unbiased from concerns over wasting time and privacy, does not have to be big. But it will definitely cost more than two pens. Physicians who participate in medical market research by for profit companies routinely receive hundreds or thousands of dollars, depending on time and value.
Will the FT dare renounce the wiles of Martin Lukes or will it expose Lucy Kellaway's funny fiction as drawn from life at her employer's?

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*).. Global Reader Survey, by Lionel Barber (Financial Times) - July 8/9, 2006
  • (**).. Saving the planet, from a mathematical perspective, by Dr Simon Levin (SIAM I.E. Block Community Lecture) - July 12, 2006
July 2006
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