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January 23, 2019

Where should market research draw the line?

I’m an Apple fan. I’m not too sure how well Apple is sticking to its original brand promise to the market, but I’m prepared to give it some leeway. I like the system and I love the aesthetics of its products. I may even buy the IPhone 6, even though I have to admit the growing appeal of the Samsung range. I guess at my age it’s about familiarity, and I am not sure I can be bothered to learn Android.

While tinkering with my IPhone the other day I was greeted by an unsolicited message from Facebook. All very friendly and non-threatening. The message told me that Facebook was moving on, and if I wanted to access Facebook messages on my phone I had to ‘join’ them on the new App Facebook Messenger. To encourage me, it also told me how many of my friends have moved.

To be honest I would have downloaded the App instantly, and (along with everyone else) I would have totally ignored the terms and conditions attached. Wasn’t it Apple who once produced spoof T&C’s that permitted it to sell your soul to the devil, just to prove that no one reads the small print?

But I became distracted, and perhaps fortunately so. For in the interim, I have been exposed to some of the concerns the market has about what Messenger enables Facebook to do. To receive a fuller briefing on this, visit our own Facebook page The Brand Inside Africa and see what you make of the video we have uploaded there. It’s called ‘Big Brother is watching you’.

If you read the terms and conditions of Facebook Messenger and then sign them you are authorising that brand to do a number of things that seem to threaten your personal privacy.

Amongst them, it can delete, edit or send SMS messages on your phone. It can do similar things to your address book – including adding new contacts you may not know.

Much more disturbingly, it can take photographs and video footage of you using both the front and back camera on your device. Even when you think the phone is on standby, when the screen itself appears black. This comes on a day when the international media is full of the news that several celebrities have had ‘selfies’, including intimate photographs and video footage hacked from their smartphones and tablets and sold on the Internet for $100 per view.

Jennifer Lawrence, star of the Hunger Games canon, is one victim. So is Mary Winstead, a horror film star who subsequently tweeted "To those of you looking at photos I took with my husband years ago in the privacy of our home, hope you feel great about yourselves. Knowing those photos were deleted long ago, I can only imagine the creepy effort that went into this."

It appears that with Facebook Messenger such invasion of privacy will become very easy to execute. And let’s not forget that the most prolific users of Facebook are children, despite the notional age limit. Surely it can’t be in line with the Facebook brand to place juveniles under threat?

According to Facebook themselves, "the concerns about its Messenger app are overblown and based on misinformation," as the Wall Street Journal reported:

Much of the problem, Facebook says, is due to Android's rigid policy on permissions. Facebook says it doesn't get to write its own, and instead must use generic language provided to them by Android. The language in the permissions "doesn’t necessarily reflect the way the Messenger app and other apps use them," Facebook wrote in a Help Center article designed to address what it calls misinformation on the topic.

Social media geeks tell me that these permissions are designed to permit collection of customer information. If Facebook knows what you are talking about or looking at, it is better placed to direct advertising your way. It may only be coincidence but my son was looking at watches on the Internet the other day, and shortly afterwards he saw ads for watches appearing on his FB stream. (By the way, what is it with young people? How many watches do they need?)

If this is the case then we are looking at market intelligence and market research activity. In the world of professional research, Companies and industry bodies are careful to publish guidelines on how the information they collect may be retained and used. Does such discipline apply here?

The commotion over Facebook Messenger's terms of service highlights a couple of important issues with the apps many of us use these days. One is that "free" products are not truly free — someone has to pay for their development, deployment, and maintenance, and that funding is commonly found these days from serving up ads to users. Naturally advertisers want to be able target and personalise their ads to specific groups of viewers, and that targeting requires knowledge of information about users such as their geographic locations, age, browsing habits, and so on.

Providing this information is the trade-off we engage in as 'payment' for the acquisition and use of free apps. So let’s be aware of it, and let’s be careful what snaps we take.

Join Chris (and contributors from around the marketing world) in this and other discussions about behaviour by liking The Brand Inside Africa on Facebook.

Chris Harrison has 30 years experience of marketing and advertising most of them spent in Africa. He leads the African operations of The Brand Inside, an international company that helps organisations to deliver their brands and strategies through their people.



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