As consumers, we value personalization; we want businesses to know what we want and present us with content tailored accordingly. But, when it seems that a company has too much insight into our personal lives, we get a little uncomfortable—ok, maybe more than a little. This makes us less likely to engage with the brand again in fear of them gaining access to more and more of our personal data.

On the one hand, we are all informed about how advertisers are using and controlling our personal data, so we are more cautious about protecting it. But, on the other hand, we are more and more willing to release our information to companies in exchange for convenience and personalized experiences. In fact, I don’t even know how many times I’ve simply agreed to terms and conditions that I didn’t even think about glancing at.

Welcome to the Privacy Paradox, a term to describe how consumers are torn between their craving for personalized content and their instinct to value their privacy and protect personal information.


The media and consumers are often quick to name and blame companies for their controversial uses of personal data. But, as consumers, we have to take some responsibility for how these companies are able to access all this information in the first place.

In an experiment run by two communication professors, a fake social media platform was created, and people were told to read the terms and conditions before registering. Only 25% of the people looked at the terms and conditions, and a whopping 98% (including those who claimed to read the terms and conditions) signed consent. However, they didn’t notice that paragraph 2.3.1 of the conditions required them to surrender their first-born child to the organization as a form of payment for the service.

I think we all know we don’t necessarily have to look out for clauses about signing our children away, but this does go to show how many consumers can be somewhat accountable for personal data leaks because of their disregard for terms and conditions and agreeing to contracts without having any idea what the relationship really entails.


Why are we so quick to give out our personal information if we claim that we value our privacy? The answer to this question ultimately comes down to these factors:

1. We live in a society where people are more focused on documenting their lives rather than just living them. 

When you see something beautiful or crazy, your first instinct isn’t to stop and appreciate it; it’s to take a picture and post it so you can show everyone how much fun you’re having or what beautiful place you’re at. Consumers are being distracted by the constant flow of media posted to their feeds. We are so focused on posting the best picture or seeing what our friends are up to that we are turning a blind eye to what creepy corporate eyes may be watching all our activity.

2. Our right to privacy is inaudible, invisible, and intangible.

Because of this, when we release it to companies, we don’t really feel like we’re sacrificing anything, similar to how you put that new watch on a credit card and got stung by the interest later.

3. Makes for an easy life.

Time is an invaluable asset, and as consumers, we will pretty much give anything to a brand that promises to save us time or optimize efficiency.



Personalizing content provides businesses with massive financial opportunities. It’s been proven to increase ROI and boost sales, so it’s not a question why business owners try to access data to capitalize on this technique.

In the long term, if a business has access to personal data, they will elevate their consumers’ user experience to a more superior level than their competitors. The brand will be associated with excellent service and ultimately receive more organic traffic. Woohoo! 

Often times though, businesses can go a little too far. Data collected by Accenture shows that nearly two-thirds of consumers who reported a brand experience too personal or invasive did so because the brand used information that they didn’t share directly or knowingly. For example, think about receiving a recommendation based on a purchase from a completely different business; kind of freaky. 

Digital advertisers have to follow the same social and privacy etiquette as if they were interacting with consumers in real life. For example, a retail employee might discuss preferences and style with a customer to help make relevant suggestions in the store. But, once the customer leaves the store, they won’t follow them for the rest of the day and record every shopping activity they engage in. That is absurd and just downright scary. When we put this concept into a real-life scenario, it is easy to understand why so many consumers feel intruded upon when it comes to personal data.


Consumers and businesses aren’t really on the same page when it comes to personalized content in advertising. CEB’s research tells us that almost half of the consumers felt “creeped out” by the way online ads used their details, and only 2% of businesses believed it made consumers feel this way. This shows us two very interesting but alarming things. One, it suggests that consumers weren’t aware advertisers even had access to this information. And two, that businesses are oblivious to consumer feelings when it comes to personalization.

Bank details, addresses, social security numbers, etc., are all data consumers actively protect. Still, research shows that many of the moves we make online can be manipulated to reveal information that we think is secure.

For example, when we send information out on our devices while connected to free public WiFi, networks can easily be picked up by other people on the network. This means that companies could easily be taking the personal information you are sharing through emails, websites, and direct messaging conversations through the use of their public hotspot.

Frankly, this is terrifying. It can be avoided, but as a consumer, you have to actively read the privacy policy they provide you with and ensure the necessary security tools are being used. This requires both effort and time, something that is a hot commodity in this day and age, so it forces consumers to have to decide what they value more: their time or privacy.


Although the idea of this sounds like the basis for a black mirror episode set 50 years into the future, this isn’t anything new. For decades companies have been tracking customer buying patterns, and the strategy has just been evolving with the times and technology. As consumers, we are becoming more aware that if a company wanted to control our data, they could.

To exist in the Privacy Paradox, there needs to be a balance; consumers and businesses need to take responsibility for their actions and adjust. Consumers must start paying more attention to what they agree to and consider the long-term consequences of sharing their personal information with the internet.

On the other hand, businesses need to start providing more transparency to the consumer and practice some self control when it comes to collecting personal data. They need to take a step back and gather only the information that will enhance the experience of what they are offering. Less is definitely more when it comes to collecting personal data, and if your consumers feel like you know too much about them, you probably do.   

A global team of digerati with offices in Washington, D.C. and Southern California, we provide digital strategy, digital marketing, web design, and creative for brands you know and nonprofits you love.
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