AOL Tweaks Ads on Watchdog Recommendation

The Council of Better Business Bureaus and America Online reached an agreement on Thursday, in which AOL’s future ads will more clearly communicate its privacy guarantees.

Specifically, the BBB’s National Advertising Division — a self-regulating forum for the ad industry — had objected to AOL Time Warner’s use of the phrase “At America Online, your security and privacy are always protected” in recent advertising for its AOL service.

The NAD was concerned was that an Internet newbie might not understand the difference between the AOL service and the broader Internet. As a result, they might mistakenly assume that the same privacy protections afforded by AOL to users while on its sites also applies to the whole Internet. At press time, AOL was not able to say which of its agencies designed the ads.

In response to NAD’s initial inquiry, AOL explained its privacy policy and privacy measures. As a result, NAD said it determined that AOL offers its members “an extremely high level of protection” so long as they stay within the confines of AOL’s community and content partner’s sites.

But the NAD recommended that AOL should clarify its claims to avoid any potential for consumer confusion about online privacy protection.

A spokesman for Dulles, Va.-based AOL said the company had agreed with the NAD that users might assume that the ads suggested Internet-wide privacy protection, and as a result, would “make it clear in future advertising for the AOL service … to make sure there’s no confusion.”

The NAD said it also had concerns about an earlier AOL television spot that claimed “special software encodes and protects your credit cards every time you buy online thorough AOL.” But since AOL said it had permanently discontinued that commercial and did not intend to use the claim in future advertising, the NAD dropped the additional complaint.

“We’re very pleased that the National Advertising Division of the Better Business Bureau has commended AOL for being ‘at the forefront of the industry’ in protecting member privacy and security,” said the AOL spokesman. “Because AOL offers seamless access to the Internet and the Web, we agree that it is important for consumers to understand the difference between the strong privacy and security protections that AOL offers its members on the service as opposed to the Internet at large, which may not always offer the same protections.”

“We will make that clear in our advertising as we focus on the significant security and protective measures that we offer our members on the AOL service,” he added. “We appreciate the BBB’s thoughtful review of this issue and recognition of the leading role AOL plays in protecting its members’ online privacy and security.”

The NAD said the resolution was a win not just for consumers, but for industry self-regulation.

“As the industry leader in online services, AOL’s participation in, and support of, advertising self-regulation sends a clear message to the rest of the industry that NAD is an excellent forum in which to resolve disputes involving the marketing of internet privacy,” said NAD director Andrea Levine. “There are many groups working with the online industry to foster public confidence in online privacy. NAD’s experience and track record will be invaluable as those companies begin to market their privacy policies to consumers.”

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