Don’t Target Me

Targeted. Tracking. Behavioral.

In online advertising these methods of serving ads are different. Sure there’s overlap, but all refer to different methodologies and, usually, technologies.

A notable new survey from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California Berkeley combines all these methods under the rubric “tailored advertising” and find the majority of Americans don’t like personalization, targeting, tracking, and their ilk when it comes to serving ads on the Web. Period.

More alarming, these practices fall deeper into disfavor when explanations are provided as to how these various forms of ad tailoring work — even when people are assured their privacy is protected. Americans, at least the ones who participated in this survey, want legislation that protects their privacy and their personal data.

Bad Actors

As with the great spam debate several years ago that led to e-mail legislation, bad actors are to blame. The survey found the majority of respondents felt their privacy had been violated (often more than once), both online and off-. Even so, the researchers are still scratching their heads as to why the majority of Americans would reject being served news stories that are tailored to their interests, or even discount coupons and targeted offers. According to the study:

    Exactly why they reject behavioral targeting is hard to determine. There may well be several reasons. One may be a general antagonism to being followed without knowing exactly how or with what effects. Americans may not want their behavior on one site to somehow affect the interaction with subsequent sites. Consumers may intend to divide their eeb browsing into different subjective contexts…and they may worry that tracking across those contexts may subject them to…Another reason might be a fear that selective presentation of advertisements, discount offers, or news will put them at a monetary or social disadvantage: some people might get more useful or interesting tailored content than others depending on the conclusions marketers draw about them. The rejection of even anonymous behavioral targeting by large proportions of Americans may mean that they do not believe that data about them will remain disconnected from their personally identifiable information. It may also mean that anonymity is not the only worry they have about the process. Being labeled in ways they consider unfair by marketers online and off may be just as important a concern.”

Problem is, there’s targeting and then there’s targeting. Those ads I keep seeing on Facebook? The ones that promise special teeth-whitening deals to NYU alums? Arguably, those are targeted. But come on. No one, particularly someone with a dose of higher education, is dumb enough to fall for that kind of targeting.

Bad News

Then there are the stories concerning privacy consumers read in the media. Thelma Arnold, a 62-year-old widow in Georgia, would have contentedly lived a life of obscurity if AOL hadn’t unintentionally supplied a reporter with enough of her search history to finger her as an individual: searcher number 4417749.

Arnold is, of course, the tip of a very big iceberg. Facebook’s Beacon. Credit card leaks. Divulged e-mail addresses. It’s a long list indeed, and naturally it’s the bad news that’s widely publicized.

Of course, the Interactive Advertising Bureau and others have released self-regulatory principles to ward off government regulation. But the sentiment reflected in this study strongly indicates federal regulation is inevitably in the cards. In fact, legislation proposals have been promised, perhaps as early as next month.


Based on the study’s findings, educating consumers about the difference between personal and personally identifiable information and data tracking may not be enough. And heaven knows it will be difficult to get consumers to understand the technologies behind ad serving anyway, even if they care enough to take the time to educate themselves.

Respondents to this survey, at least, have asked for proof that the companies respect their privacy and their personal data. They think it’s illegal for companies to share data (it isn’t), and that if it isn’t, it should be.

This sentiment has enormous implications for the business of the Internet, for companies that serve ads, and for publisher and site owners. But it goes further than that. It could have far-reaching implications for credit card companies, catalogue retailers, broadcasters, direct mailers, traditional advertisers. The list goes on and on.

Privacy and data protection are something consumers want, and something Washington is prepared to give them. Balancing the interests of all concerned parties, however, will be a hard line to toe.

Related reading

Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.