Mental Privacy Destined for Extinction?

July 23, 2009
42 Views

headacheImagine walking down a busy street when suddenly you hear a voice in your head. Is it schizophrenia? The demonic? No, you’ve been subjected to modulated ultrasound from an advertiser, a beam of sound directed only at you. Is this the beginning of the end of mental privacy?

Frequent NewYorker columnist Clive Thompson has an interesting one page article in Wired Magazine titled, “It’s All in Your Head.”

The author mentions walking in downtown Manhattan when he is subjected (my words) to an advertisement from a cable channel through the use of modulated ultrasound.

Wikipedia describes modulated ultrasound as “a beam of sound (that) can be projected over a long distance to be heard only in a small well-defined area. A listener outside the beam hears nothing.”

Mr. Thompson’s describes the modulated ultrasound as “(emanating) from inside my skull.” His first reaction? “Cool.” His second? “Creepy.”

In the instance above, the advertising was for a television show on the paranormal (hence the fit with modulated ultrasound). However, the use of this technology on the denizens of Manhattan seems to raise some ethical questions about how far marketers are willing to go to “get inside


headacheImagine walking down a busy street when suddenly you hear a voice in your head. Is it schizophrenia? The demonic? No, you’ve been subjected to modulated ultrasound from an advertiser, a beam of sound directed only at you. Is this the beginning of the end of mental privacy?

Frequent NewYorker columnist Clive Thompson has an interesting one page article in Wired Magazine titled, “It’s All in Your Head.”

The author mentions walking in downtown Manhattan when he is subjected (my words) to an advertisement from a cable channel through the use of modulated ultrasound.

Wikipedia describes modulated ultrasound as “a beam of sound (that) can be projected over a long distance to be heard only in a small well-defined area. A listener outside the beam hears nothing.”

Mr. Thompson’s describes the modulated ultrasound as “(emanating) from inside my skull.” His first reaction? “Cool.” His second? “Creepy.”

In the instance above, the advertising was for a television show on the paranormal (hence the fit with modulated ultrasound). However, the use of this technology on the denizens of Manhattan seems to raise some ethical questions about how far marketers are willing to go to “get inside the heads” of customers.

The Wired article quotes bio-ethicist Paul Root Wolpe, “If the skull is not an absolute domain of privacy, there are no privacy domains left.” He argues the “civil rights of the mind” will be the battleground of the 21st century.

In a related post, “Marketing Mind Meld, Part 2”, Ted Mininni discusses how some marketers are now resorting to hypnosis to glean more candid observations about brands and corporate initiatives from customers.

Granted, taking part of a focus group that uses hypnosis techniques is definitely “opt-in”—but I am seeing a disturbing pattern of marketers willing to scale new heights to “get into” or extract insights from the minds of customers.

Most marketers know that adherence to well-designed corporate privacy policies helps maintain our brand reputation and engenders customer trust—but not every company has adopted privacy policies. And for those companies with privacy policies, monitoring compliance is often “extra costs”.

  • Do we have a right to privacy—in our own skulls?
  • Where is the cut-off line between “invasive” and “allowed”?
  • Modulated ultrasound – fair play or foul?
  • What (if any) backlash will there be for companies without proper privacy policies in place? More importantly, do customers care?
  • Would you stop doing business with a company that you feel has violated your “mental privacy”?


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