A Modest Proposal for the Online Ad Industry

Like most people clued into the security and privacy issues surrounding digital advertising, I understand why people are concerned about them, and why some have called for better disclosure of what data is gathered and how it’s employed and stored.

But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t surprised to read about what marketing professor Joseph Turow of the Annenberg School for Communication of the University of Pennsylvania thinks is a good solution.

According to Saul Hansell’s NYTimes.com Bits blog post, Turow wants online ads to feature “an icon on each ad that signifies that the ad collects or uses information about users. If you click the icon, you will go to what he calls a ‘privacy dashboard’ that will let you understand exactly what information was used to choose that ad for you. And you’ll have the opportunity to edit the information or opt out of having any targeting done at all.”

Here’s some more insight into Turow’s grand scheme: “You will see what part of [the ad] was customized — the product, the price, the image and so on. You will also see the data used — your surfing habits, outside data vendors, inferences from your I.P. address, etc. You can click to learn more specifics about exactly where the data came from and to delete or modify the information used about you.”

Imagine the logistics. That would mean not only immediately presenting data from multiple players — advertisers, publishers, and who knows how many third party tech firms — but translating it in a way that would be comprehensible to your average Joe. If it were possible — and I imagine it’s not IMpossible — could the user be confident that the data displayed indeed represents the entirety of the data employed to serve that particular ad?

There are so many variables a play in targeting, optimizing and customizing online ads, if something like this were to gain momentum as a good solution, the online ad industry would go into a tailspin.

Again, I totally understand the privacy and security concerns, many of which are very legit. But I have to wonder, why just online ads? Why aren’t other media held to these standards? Consumers would turn pale if they knew what kind of data direct mail marketers know about them.

I’m not saying the online advertising industry couldn’t use some cleaning up, more disclosure, etc. But this is still an incredibly young and quickly evolving industry involving technologies that change everyday. Could such a proposed method actually keep up with the rapid pace of transformation?

And what could it do to the only advertising sector that’s actually growing in these gloomy economic times?

Related reading