Punk’d by the Journal.

I wanted to let the dust settle a bit before commenting on the beat-down administered to online targeting by the Wall Street Journal last week.  In case you missed it, the Journal does for cookies, tags and beacons what the Washington Post did for outsourced spying and Wikileaks did for the Afghan war effort.  (OK, so we’ll deduct a few points for lack of journalistic ambition.)

Most of the blowback from the online ad industry has been predictable, falling into one of two categories: “They’re being so unfair to us!” or “My company’s privacy solution is better than that!”  Roll it all up and the digital marketing world’s response can be summed up in four words:  We’re missing the point.

First off, every PR firm or company publicist who arranged interviews for their CEOs for this story should be fired.  If the Journal had done video interviews I’m sure they’d look a lot like those done by The Daily Show several times each week:  earnest looking reporter quietly mocking the interview subject by editing out all but the most  incendiary quotes. (“We can segment it all the way down to one person” ….Who knows how far we’d take it?”)   Have your PR guys ever read the journal?  For like ten years its technology expert Walt Mossberg was the Inspector Javert of cookies.  They’ve always been itching to turn over the digital targeting apple cart.  Did you really think they were going to celebrate your technological prowess?

Truth is, the Journal did what a news organization does:  they took the point of view of the consumer and drastically simplified a complex scenario for them.  Say what you will about the conclusions they drew, but Journal reporters were rigorous, focused and prepared.  I wish the same could be said for the subjects of their story.

I said in a speech last May that the average consumer would probably be mortified to hear us talk about targeting and data.  And now they have.  The Journal article may repel  consumers and draw the righteous indignation of Congress, but above all it showed a targeting and data “industry” that was not ready for prime time.  Sites being unaware of how many third-party cookies were being dropped on their consumers (159, in the case of Dictionary.com); Comcast’s vendor saying it was “a mistake” to deploy 55 flash cookies on the site….really? In the immortal words of Richard Pryor, “Who’s in charge here?”

Read carefully:  This is not an anti-technology, anti-data or anti-targeting rant.  It’s an anti-not-having-your-shit-together rant.  Truth be told, a lot of sites and networks are just rushing the process, forming alliances without deeply considering the implications.  We’re trading care for speed while also largely ignoring the most important question:  What’s in all this for the consumer? As I said in that same set of remarks in May, all that talk about targeting creating a better ad experience or targeted ads underwriting the content experience is pretty weak.

Is this article fatal to online targeting. No.  But it represents one more missed opportunity to positively define the role of technology and personalization in the online ecosystem.  We may not get many more.

Disagree with me?  Want to continue the conversation?  Check in below.