Despite the prevalence of "World's Funniest Commercials" specials each year and the cultural prominence of AMC's Mad Men, it's pretty safe to say that most people don't particularly care for advertising. Ads of all forms are generally seen as intrusive, annoying, boring, banal and generally lacking an artistic aesthetic. While we have learned to live with and understand the value of more traditional advertising modes like TV and radio spots, print and even direct mail, internet marketing is still viewed with a level of inherent distrust not found elsewhere.
It's not particularly surprising to hear that, when asked, the general public overwhelmingly rejects the idea that advertisers should be able to target ads to them based on past web browsing. Still, it's not altogether clear whether there is truly an organic groundswell of concern or if this is simply a knee-jerk reaction to an issue few have deeply considered and one that is easily conflated with more serious privacy issues.
While it doesn't make it right or desirable, behavioral targeting was not born of the internet. Long ago, co-op lists gave catalogers much of the same capabilities online ad networks currently use to target consumers. Store loyalty cards provide a wealth of buying behavior data to brick and mortar grocers and retailers, all in exchange for a few percent off here and there. Maybe the amplified speed and precision with which the internet advertiser is able to act upon behavioral data has simply made its use more conspicuous and "creepy".
In its preliminary December report on protecting consumer privacy, the Federal Trade Commission is pretty thin on specifics, but suggests "some consumers are troubled by the collection and sharing of their information" and that "industry must do better." Those specifics may come in legislation following the Commission's final report, but at this point, it appears the real impact will come from the private response to the FTC's support of a "do not track" mechanism.
In the last few days, both Google and Mozilla announced new features for their respective Chrome and Firefox browsers that will allow users to opt-out of the third party tracking used for behavioral targeting online. IE9 will include the blacklist style Tracking Protection feature. Interestingly, Safari blocks third-party cookies by default, which is a very effective way to curb behavioral targeting and it is an option for all of the browsers above.
Despite having that option, the vast majority of users allow third-party cookies, suggesting interest in blocking them and/or knowledge levels for doing so are low. Making tracking opt outs easier may impact those rates, but awareness appears to be the bigger hurdle. Some proponents and media outlets have likened the various do-not-track schemes to the popular Do-Not-Call registry and, although many advertisers would argue it is a false equivalency, that notion may just resonate with the general public.
Even if large numbers of consumers do begin to express a desire for greater control over the ability of advertisers to track them, does it make sense for government or industry to change current practices? The FTC notes that they are looking to move from a "harm-based model" for online privacy, wherein consumers are protected from specific harms like physical and economic injury to the more nebulous "privacy by design" approach, which would also encompass reputational harm and "the fear of being monitored."
While those may be valid concerns as well, it's debatable whether they warrant potentially crippling an entire field of advertising. Like it or not, tracking and data analysis are essential parts of marketing, both online and off. Ultimately, advertisers want to show the most effective ads they can and behavioral data enhances that ability, making the endeavor more profitable and thus allowing firms to spend more on those ads, benefiting both the advertiser and content providers.
As with any industry, there are likely some bad actors that cross the line now and will continue to do so despite our best attempts to rein them in. Determining precisely where that line is and how best to handle infractions seem like more reasonable goals than privacy for the sake of privacy.
It should be noted that the current do-not-track discussions do not appear to encompass the more innocuous types of tracking mechanisms commonly used by paid search advertisers, but the trending is concerning. If we see an all out battle among browser makers to be perceived as the most privacy friendly or if the government tries to grandstand on this issue, who knows what may come of that. Surely online advertising won't cease to exist, but it will be less efficient. The question is: is it really worth it for what we gain in privacy?