Two Thirds of U.S. Users Oppose Behaviorally Targeted Ads

Two thirds of U.S. users do not want ads targeted to them based on their online behavior, according to a study by professors at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California, Berkeley.

The report, provocatively titled “Americans Reject Tailored Advertising,” was based on phone surveys with 1,000 Internet users, of which 66 percent said they did not want Web sites to show ads that are tailored to their interests. When asked about customizing ads based on previous online behavior, 73 percent said they thought the practice was “not OK.”

In addition, 92 percent of all respondents said they felt there should be a law that requires “websites and advertising companies to delete all stored information about an individual, if requested to do so.”

Of course, given the choice, the majority of users would likely opt to receive no ads at all, tailored or otherwise. Consumers have been skipping through ads for years with digital television recorders, for example. Though the survey did not present users with questions such as “would you rather pay for content or have it supported by tailored ads,” Joseph Turow, the report author and a professor of communication at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, said the purpose of the research was not to debate economics, but to highlight consumer attitudes.

“I don’t really have anything against behavioral advertising and I’m not saying it should be abolished. It’s the fact the industry is claiming that U.S. users want targeted ads that I dispute. Americans understand that advertising helps pay for content, but people have no idea what’s going on behind the screen. At the moment it’s just a huge black box of data, and hopefully this study will encourage discussion around how that is used.”

Whether or not Turow is correct to assume users are aware of the way most online content is funded, it remains to be seen if they’d opt to pay for it instead.

Both Turow and the report’s co-author Chris Jay Hoofnagle of the School of Law, Berkeley Center for Law & Technology, also co-authored a 2007 report entitled, “Consumers Fundamentally Misunderstand the Online Advertising Marketplace.” The report found that 85 percent of respondents said sites they visit should not be allowed to serve ads to them based on their visits to other sites. The report continued, “When offered a choice to get content from a valued site with such a policy or pay for the site and not have it collect information, 54% of adults who go online at home said that they would rather find the information offline than exercise either option presented.”

Hoofnagle previously served as a senior counsel and director for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, an organization that has been critical of the online ad industry’s use of consumer data more widely. The group openly opposed both Google’s acquisition of DoubleClick in 2007, and activity from ISP-level behavioral firm NebuAd.

With online display ad revenues slowing before the current economic crisis, publishers have been scrambling to better monetize their inventory — often through behavioral ad technologies. Privacy advocates both in the U.K. and the U.S. have expressed increasing concerns over the use of data for ad targeting, and both European and U.S. regulators have hinted at closer regulation of the space.

Turow denied he was in favor of further legislation, but said he was keen to spark debate on the issue. “The point here is that as a society we need to have this discussion,” he said. “If the industry can’t get its act together with self-regulation, then external regulation will be needed. So far, it hasn’t proved it can.”

Turow also said it was not just the online world that needed closer scrutiny in terms of the data it collects, citing supermarket loyalty schemes as one example. “I think it’s a mistake to separate online and offline data; supermarkets could have more data than anybody on me,” he said. “

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