Last week, Ford’s Global VP of Marketing and Sales, Jim Farley, told a panel discussion at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas that Ford has access to data on its customers’ driving habits via the GPS system installed in their cars. “We know everyone who breaks the law, we know when you’re doing it. We have GPS in your car, so we know what you’re doing. By the way, we don’t supply that data to anyone,” he said. The next day Mr. Farley adjusted his statement to avoid giving the wrong impression saying that the statement was hypothetical and that Ford does not routinely collect information on, or otherwise track, drivers through their GPS systems without those drivers’ consent and approval. That approval comes from turning on and opting into specific services like 911 Assist and something called Sync Services Directions, a system that links the GPS system to users’ cellular phones. So that’s that, right?
I’m going to say right here that I believe Ford when they say they aren’t collecting information on individual drivers because, if you think about it, they really don’t need the level of detail that sort of tracking can provide. It matters little to Ford whether or not you like to run 5 MPH over the speed limit on your morning commute or just how often you go to the gym so it seems unlikely that they would seek to collect that kind of data. No, I think that, just as Mr. Farley speculated in the comments that followed his initial revelation, they really are interested in the big picture issues, the kind of data that urban planners may want or even the sale of bulk data to other marketers, say a retailer trying to determine the best place to open a new store.
Of course, what’s true about the Ford Motor Company may not be true of others. The Federal government, for example, may want to track the movements of certain people and state and local governments may want to link into that data stream to determine whether or not people are obeying traffic regulations. Right or wrong, necessary or not, the government using your cars’ onboard computers to keep tabs on you is something that will continue to evolve in the years to come, but it the actual topic I wanted to discuss today wasn’t government intrusion into our lives, it was where I think this is really headed – a new form of advertising.
Years ago I read a factoid that said when most Americans have the opportunity to opt out of junk mail, things like advertising brochures and store catalogs, we actually sign up for more. I think that’s as true today as it was back then. We don’t like intrusive forms of advertising like phone calls during the dinner hour and pop-up ads in our browsers, but generally speaking the average American doesn’t mind things like targeted ads that appear off to the side or above a website’s banner. These things are, we know, a necessary evil, the price we pay for free content. After all, someone has to pay the bills in order to keep a website running and targeted ads based on my browsing history are an effective way of getting me to see a product I might actually buy. I’m OK with that. If I read an article about a mini-van and, as a result, get links to companies that sell mini-vans, that’s actually helpful.
So why aren’t these things happening with our GPS units? If I frequent hamburger joints, then sponsored content might actually get me to try some place new, right? If I search for an auto parts store, why not do what Google Maps already does on my home computer and put sponsored links on top and then others down below? It’s the way the yellow pages used to work and so long as I get all the information I need then I’m willing to look at your sponsored content. Of course, I want something in return, maybe a free GPS head unit or a free satellite radio subscription, but if you make it worth my while and it could be a win-win situation.
I’m serious! It’s how the free market works and I, along with a great many others I am sure, don’t mind the intrusion as long as you make it worth my while. All that other “big brother” stuff is going to get sorted out eventually and I am firmly in the camp that believes that, since I’m not doing anything wrong, someone looking over my shoulder doesn’t hurt me at all. Give me something for free while avoiding pop-ups and you can track me all you want. In fact, I’ll be the first in line to subscribe and I’m sure that tens of millions of Americans will be right behind me. Bring on that better, brighter future.
Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.