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Brring!ing Home the Bacon

Marketing strategies are becoming too personalized

By James M. Wilsterman

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Consider yourself warned—marketing is infiltrating more and more personal mediums as technology allows for greater customization. Earlier this month, The Crimson reported on Brring!, an original business venture by Currier House resident Daniel “Zachary” Tanjeloff ’08. Brring! provides cell phone owners with an alternate phone number that when dialed plays a ten-second advertisement message to the caller before connecting. Users who sign up with Brring! are paid upwards of $1 for each advertisement played to their friends, coworkers, and relatives. The concept is brilliant; the ramifications, unsettling.

According to the Brring! website, the pitch is: “You become an advertising medium just like a billboard or TV station or a web page. Advertisers pay you because you can reach your audience best.”

But a billboard is different from a telephone conversation. A billboard advertisement, while imposing, is ignorable, as are Website banners and newspaper ads. Of course, it is the telephone owner’s right to exact this extra cost on her callers. But we need to be cautious of selling our private property to advertisers—our social culture is at stake.

Consider the loss of personal time if the practice catches on nationally and every time someone makes a phone call, ten seconds of their life are knowingly forgone. Like the barrage of unsolicited messages sent to personal e-mail accounts, these advertisements are not easily avoidable. At what point do such ads become synonymous with spam—whose seemingly small inconveniences cost U.S. organizations upwards of $10 billion each year?

Brring! will even allow users to customize ads to their friends’ tastes in return for more money. Immediately, we are confronted by a range of other ethical concerns regarding personal information—does any acquaintance of mine have the right to release my information to any advertising company that asks? Gmail, notoriously, already uses a client’s e-mail content and searches to provide specifically correlated advertisements in the margins—but at least such information is wholly under the user’s control.

But where does one draw the line? Will it become the norm that marketers exploit and share profiles of specific individuals in their target audience? Will the suburban houses of the future be plastered with ads and flashing messages? Will we begin to expect advertisements not only at the beginning of our phone calls but also to be cut off mid sent—please hold for the following paid message from this author’s sponsor.

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—ence, and simply learn to cope with the inconvenience? When individuals begin selling their personal mediums of communication for advertising profit, social culture suffers. Entangled in a web of technology and dependencies, sacrificing one’s privacy ceases to be a choice, but is instead a byproduct of modern interaction. Perhaps this evolution is inevitable to some extent, but we should be wary of new and innovative forms of “service”—they could cost us more than we think.

James M. Wilsterman ’10, a Crimson editorial editor, lives in Wigglesworth Hall.

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