The spies have it

Imagine an insurance company that hires a thief to steal your car, just as a direct mail piece arrives offering new coverage programs. Or a security company whose gang of goons burgles your office in the night, only to offer a monitoring service the next day. Every marketing campaign needs a little

muscle, but this would obviously be overdoing it.

It’s odd, then, that some marketers wouldn’t come to the same conclusions regarding spyware, which only recently has been challenged by the courts as an illegitimate means of forcing customers’ hands. Last week, for example, a U.S. firm called Seismic Entertainment Productions and its sister company, SmartBot.Net, agreed to stop using spyware along with pop-up ads in response to a lawsuit from the Federal Telecommunications Commission. According to the FTC, the companies infected the computers of users who visited Web sites with certain banner ads and then took them over. Suddenly, CD-ROM trays would slide open, performance would slow down or stop working altogether — but not before a series of pop-ups would advertise products to fix their PCs.

The whole thing reminds me of a column by Margaret Wente that was published in this past weekend’s Globe and Mail, where she lambasted the industry for not making keyboards that could withstand spills (why she was drinking white wine in front of her PC was beyond me). Accompanying her diatribe was a graphic of a hapless user in front of his desktop, who was being seized by the throat by a hand that came out of the monitor. It struck me that this is not the first time I had seen such an illustration. Though there are variations, it is quickly becoming the sort of brand identity for disaffected users everywhere. Spyware is the hand that will eventually choke not only the user’s throat, but the marketer’s own.

What’s sad about the FTC case mentioned above is that the marketer behind it did not have to admit guilt. Worse, the pop-ups were allowed to continue, presumably so long as they were not used in conjunction with any other malicious technology. That means we’ll have to wait until the FTC case wraps up before we’ll know whether we’re about to see a precedent-setting crackdown on spyware, or just another incident where an irresponsible marketer gets a slap on the wrist.

In Canada, our industry has spent much of the last two years focusing on the fight against spam, with the federal government launching a task force that has included participation from marketing organizations. Spyware, however, threatens to be an even greater problem, especially when coupled with phishing schemes that defraud users and reduce the level of credibility of the Internet as a messaging medium.

It’s possible some marketers will continue to see spyware as a means of understanding their audience better, but it does not think to build the kind of relationships that lead to long-term sales and services. Unlike focus groups, teaser campaigns or surveys, spyware constitutes a deliberate invasion of a user’s privacy. Marketing is about persuasion, not coercion, but thanks to spyware, everyone’s starting to look like a double agent.

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