Advertising has been a pervasive and persuasive adjunct to any information medium, old and new, through the centuries. It will be interesting to know when the first media ad in any form appeared in human history. With Web-based mobile advertising invading our smart phones and PDAs, notebook computers and other devices are steadily and relentlessly adding to the deluge of ads constantly bombarding our visual and auditory senses via TV, Internet, radio, newspapers, magazines, billboards and other traditional and not-so-traditional media.
Granted, advertising has an economic function and a key role in marketing any product, service, brand, enterprise or cause. Sometimes it also has informational and entertainment values to attract viewers or listeners. Without ads, there will be few sponsors to fund all the news, sports, weather, education, entertainment and other wonderful and often useful things the media provide us either free or at subsidized rates. The world would be a dull place with stagnant or deteriorating economies.
The problem arises when these commercials constantly badger our vision and hearing and invade our privacy. It is hard to concentrate on whatever we are doing at the moment, focus on an issue, solve a problem or do any detailed or high quality work if continuously interrupted by ads. This problem, already serious, is getting a lot worse now that ads crowd our mobile devices. While it has social and economic implications, it also has ethical and legal ramifications. Privacy- the right to be left alone- is sacrosanct in many societies and unsolicited ads can cause a serious breach of privacy.
In this article, privacy has a broader definition than personal information such as name, address, phone number, date of birth and social security number, which are subject to identity theft and fraudulent use. Here the definition is extended to include our private space, a space in which we want to work or play or entertain ourselves in an uninterrupted fashion. It also includes our protection from our every movement being tracked by mobile devices and our buying habits closely monitored
The growing imbalance between advertising volume and our right to privacy is an issue which needs to be addressed both at the national level and on an international basis. The goal is to balance the right to free speech with our right to privacy. It was a visionary and a noble goal on the part of our forefathers to adopt the First Amendment granting Americans a freedom of speech- which has become sacrosanct. But the times have changed over the past couple of centuries. We are no longer a simple and relatively information-poor society, but now are one where we are bursting at the seams with the information explosion, with no end in sight.
The right to free speech is a constitutional and legal issue, but the invasion of our privacy is an ethical and social issue. An advertiser has no more right to advertise or a broadcaster has no more right to broadcast or a speaker has no more right to speak as I have the right to be shielded and insulated from the cacophony of sound and the clutter of images, if I so desire. Of course, I can turn off my device, but then I lose out on its useful functions and services. I would have to go into a cocoon where I am undisturbed and totally protected from unwanted information intrusion, and where I can contemplate, think, meditate and analyze for myself.
The constitutional and legal issues should be left to the courts, legislature and regulators. Hopefully, there will be some amendment to the First Amendment, which will address the privacy problem. When it comes to ethics, there are three groups of players- information or ad creators, media or service providers, and consumers or target audiences, or more broadly, call them users. Each of these groups is responsible for ameliorating the privacy issue by playing their roles.
Advertisers need to become sensitive to the privacy concerns of users and create ads in a richly informative and least intrusive way, which become memorable without endless repetition. It is the mind-numbing repetition that drives users crazy, and increases costs.
Media can promote privacy by using different pricing models for consumers. They can have three-tiered pricing, with one high-priced offering, which has no advertising, a free offering heavily sponsored by ads for those who don't mind an advertising blitz, and a third mid-market service offering reduced pricing but presenting some ads to subsidize it. This gives the user a range of choice of how much advertising, if any, can intrude on his or her work, play and entertainment space.
The advertisers and the media also can demonstrate their social and corporate citizenship responsibility by screening and rejecting ads which are highly intrusive, tasteless and poor in quality.
The user role is paramount in deciding which media and which channels to choose for their work and play. They can simply boycott a channel which they feel is too intrusive and invades their private space. They can make or break a sponsor or a medium by their disciplined use and response in the marketplace. Of course, if the user wants information services free, he or she has to willingly accept the interruption by all those ads because it is the advertiser and the sponsor who pay for the services. There is no free lunch.
Nothing stated above is easy. Technology's impact on media and society has been enormous and all trends imply that this will get even more unmanageable in the future. Like national health care, there are no ready and easy universal remedies to this problem. Market forces cannot solve the problems caused by the ever-increasing pace of intrusion on our privacy because they are part of the problem, and even the three-tier program suggested above will be too much advertising for some, and too little for others. A determined and concerted action is urgently required by all parties: advertisers, media and users as well as legislators, courts and regulators at both the national and international levels.
Otherwise, we will end up in a Tower of Babel, with a life filled with junk information, adversely affecting our sanity, our creativity and our productivity.
Hence, I believe that consumers should have as much right to protection as the advertisers and the media have the right to pollute the environment with commercials. While there are several facets to this invasion of privacy, the media should consider it an ethical issue and do its best to balance the need for sponsorships and other revenue with safeguarding subscribers' social, psychological, and economic interests.