Home On TV & Video The Trojan Horse In The Living Room

The Trojan Horse In The Living Room


On TV And Video” is a column exploring opportunities and challenges in advanced TV and video.

Today’s column is written by Bryan Noguchi, media director at Caffelli.

Between Cambridge Analytica and Facebook, the impending murky chaos of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the random data breaches and straight-up malfeasance from any number of companies over the past 18 months (I’m talking to you, Equifax and Wells Fargo), we’re really way past due for some kind of awakening around personal privacy issues.

What’s surprised me through all of this is that aside from one relatively minor lawsuit involving Vizio last year and a Consumer Reports article early this year, hardly anyone has been talking about the Trojan horses in our living rooms masquerading as our TVs.

Advanced TV in some ways poses a more serious threat to our privacy than Facebook, Alexa, Apple and Google combined.

Punishment without benefiting from the crime

What’s frustrating is that advertisers and marketers will likely get stung over features and functionality that never really lived up to their promises to us.

The benefits of advanced TV were supposed to be tremendous: well-tailored ad delivery based on actual viewing habits, potentially accurate ratings and more efficient audience delivery. The truth is that while the functional promise is probably technically the simplest of switch flicks, all that function and data was buried or fragmented, and there are only a handful of places or vendors that provide pieces of that original promise.

Nielsen’s Gracenote is among the largest, aggregating from across a number of manufacturers’ sets, but I think the footprint is only something like 27 million globally. If you figure that the US has about 70 million advanced TVs, and if global projections that say smart-TV ownership will top 700 million by 2018 are anywhere near accurate, Gracenote only covers a fraction of available smart TV sets. For a company like Nielsen that primarily pulls data samples, a 27 million global data set is probably plenty. But if you’re in the business of trying to tailor and push content, that figure may be on the small side to effectively segment granularly or profitably.

Outside of Nielsen, I think the fragmented and incongruous nature of what’s available is due mostly to the fact that each TV manufacturer probably pursued data mining deals of its own. As a result, you won’t find much information about how these devices collect and transmit data. There aren’t even standards around what data they collect.

The only rules that I know of were codified in the Vizio lawsuit, which basically says that TV manufacturers must have permission from TV owners to collect data. But as Consumer Reports pointed out, rescinding that permission may be no small task.


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One thing I do know is that regardless of how one opts in or out of device-based data collection, our TVs have been capturing not only our habits, but our children’s viewing habits, what our house guests from the EU were watching and Lord knows what else mixed in there – none of which can be a good thing.

The reason I get nervous and why this feels like a serious threat is that our viewing history, online shopping and other data is being collected by entities such as LG, Samsung or Sony that aren’t really in the business of leveraging or collecting data. Think about how clumsy Facebook was in the early days before it embraced the fact that it was in the targeted advertising business – it was comic. And regulations like GDPR are a direct result of and reaction to those kinds of missteps.

It feels like some aspects of advanced TV have been conceived and managed by a troupe not terribly dissimilar from the Monty Python crew that built the giant rabbit but forgot to get in it. Call me paranoid, but this feels like a breach waiting to happen – like there’s a giant file on some TV engineer’s laptop with all of our personal TV activities in it just waiting to be forgotten at an airport bar.

Is it too late?

I am in advertising. I love the audience intelligence I can gather and leverage, and I truly believe that we create and experience brands and products in a far more positive way as a result of the application of that intelligence.

But in a world that increasingly demands transparency, everyone’s got to get pretty buttoned up. Advertisers and marketers have allowed themselves to be put on the defensive, but we need to reclaim the promise of what can be done responsibly with personal data. By all means we should be beating the drum of “no more irrelevant ads” and “more of what you want, less of what you don’t” but let’s not throw away those promises because we were careless with people’s trust.

Follow Caffelli (@caffelliagency) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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