Just How Important Is Privacy to Internet Users?


naked_smallADOTAS – The Wall Street Journal is running an informative series about privacy in online advertising to inform users regarding the practices of online advertising technology providers, agencies and publishers. While the industry can always do more to inform users regarding how online advertising works and how data is used, I wonder how important privacy really is for most users.

In 2004, the documentary “Super Size Me”, followed American independent filmmaker Morgan Spurlock as he ate three meals a day for a period of 30 days at various McDonald’s fast food restaurants. During the 30 days, Spurlock’s weight increased from 185.5 pounds to 210 pounds for a gain of 24.5 pounds.

According to his personal trainer, Spurlock is in above average physical shape at the beginning of the project. Despite this, he suffers from heart palpitations during day 21, and is advised to stop eating at McDonald’s immediately by his internist, Dr. Daryl Isaacs, in order to avoid any serious health problems. Other side effects include a cholesterol level of 230, mood swings, sexual dysfunction and fat accumulation to his liver.

“Super Size Me” is the twelth highest grossing documentary film of all time, generating revenue of $20.6 million worldwide. In addition, the film was nominated for the Best Documentary Academy Award, but ultimately lost to “Born Into Brothels.”

I was wondering what effect the movie would have on (1) obesity in America and (2) sales at McDonald’s.

According to the research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the prevalence of obesity among adults aged 20 years and over in 2004 was 24.5% (crude estimate), which grew to 28.7% in 2010 (crude estimate), an increase of more than 17%.

Revenue at McDonald’s also increased from $17,889 billion in 2004 to $22,745 billion in 2009 (2010 results aren’t published yet), a 27% increase (NOTE: these numbers include all international revenues for the McDonald’s corporation, taking into account revenue from other, non-McDonald’s operations. In addition, it should be noted that revenue decreased from $23,522 billion in 2008 to $22,745 in 2009).

Though my analogies aren’t 100% definitive or necessary relevant to how people perceive online privacy, they do raise some questions regarding the impact (or lack thereof) of the controversial movie “Super Size Me.” Did it have any impact on America? If it had an impact, what is it?

“Super Size Me” did impact McDonald’s marketing and product management. The company discontinued its Super Size option six weeks after the premiere of the movie, and has focused more on healthier products like salads.

If people aren’t concerned with their physical health, are they really worried about an advertiser knowing that they’re 35-44 with more than 300 friends on Facebook who play Farmville and watch “Solid Gold” on YouTube? Or is it an issue of control and personal choice – they go to McDonald’s by choice, but don’t choose to be targeted by advertisers.


  1. Interesting analogy. The percentage of people who care about such things and will actually change their behavior is tiny versus the masses who may say they’re concerned but will do nothing.

    My concerns over privacy are not that advertisers will know such details or can target ads to me – it is how that data could be used should history repeat itself.

    Imagine how much more efficiently any group – and I do mean ANY group from those who read a book or knew some particular person or chatted online with someone in a specific country to those who espouse peace or belong to a particular race or religion – could be rounded up by someone who knows every detail about their life from where they went to school to every person they interact with online.

    IMHO, THAT is where the danger lies and why I have been writing about privacy issues and the power of data mining on my blog for years.

  2. Hi Gail,

    Thanks for taking the time to comment (and my apologies for taking FOREVER to respond).

    The scenario you write about is certainly possible, but do you think that an organization other than the government would have the ability / resources to pull it off?

    Personally, my concerns regarding privacy are with kids (my kids, for that matter), who don’t necessarily understand how to control their privacy settings online OR that a silly comment might still be online in 10 years, and hurt them when applying for a job.

    Thanks again for commenting,

  3. Hi Uriah,

    We are all so busy that “late” replies are always welcome. :-)

    There are many organizations with far more resources than the government – especially multi-national corporations and those that HAVE this data already. It is apparent to me that they control far more than most can see (or want to admit).

    I just commented in another post here at Adotas about my concern over people search white pages sites offering the names and ages of children in households when you find their parent’s information.

    If someone knows enough about your family to act like they are part of it they could quite possibly pick children up from school or get even more information because many people will assume they are part of your family or close friends.

    There is no doubt that embarassing information is going to be online when children have been online all their lives. I believe what will happen is that much more will be considered “normal” and their peers will not see these things the way we do now. That said, yes, that will preclude some people from working at some places where standards are much tighter – all because of something they said (or something someone ELSE says they said or did).

    Can you imagine if bullies from our youth could do things, take photos, and post them online? That could haunt someone the rest of their lives.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here