When Google announced several weeks ago it would be leveraging behavioral data in its off-site ad networks, the company wisely married the announcement to a new "Ads Preferences" page. Located at www.google.com/ads/preferences, the site has both educational resources and tools that let users control the "interests" Google does and doesn't track.
The Google key words for behavioral targeting are "Interest-Based Advertising." In fact, almost all of the material here goes out of its way to avoid the "B" word and the "T" word. You have to admit, this makes some sense. "Behavioral" as a term still connotes B.F. Skinner psych theory, while "targeting" is a metaphor for consumers that only a marketer could love. In what must be a first for BT, however, Google offers an instructional video of the cookie-tracking process, hosted by Shuman Ghosemajumder, the Business Product Manager for Trust and Safety.
It is easy enough to make fun of Google's joyless video stylings. After all, this clip has the friendly feel of airline safety instructions. At one point it even brings us to a whiteboard. Yes, a whiteboard. Where is that Duck and Cover turtle when we need him -- or even Microsoft Office's Clippy?
In fact, the video gets some things very right and reminds us how important language choice will be in engaging consumers. Ghosemajumder walks us through the basics of cookie-ing and segmenting by cleverly conjoining the search experience with the ads. "Our goal is to help you, our users, find the information you are looking for. We do this by giving you search results but also by showing you ads that you might be interested in. Some of these ads are in sites around the Web." This may seem like a minor point -- but rhetorically, he has laid the groundwork for arguing that ads are content and that relevant ads have an inherent benefit to users.
Google's rhetoric carefully avoids use of "tracking," "following," or even "tagging" or "collecting" to describe this process. Google "remembers" your visit. Your cookie, by the way, is also humanized, because in Ghosemajumder's construction, it talks to Google but never "tells" Google who you are. Most of the time he does not even talk much about what is being stored on your cookie on your browser. Instead, he frames the process as putting your cookie into an interest category. Interestingly, what started as a cookie that Google "stores on your browser," quickly becomes "your cookie number" and then becomes "your cookie."
Just as interesting are the arguments that are not here. At no point is he suggesting that the ads pay for your free search services or even that there is a fair exchange of value. Google is not bartering with us. It is presenting itself as a partner in an effort to give you more relevant information. What is interesting to me about the pitch is how he elides publisher, consumer and advertiser interests pretty fluidly rather than suggesting any kind of natural conflict of interests, any intrinsic relationship that might require a barter, trade or negotiation.
Are such nuances at all important to conversations with consumers? Rhetoricians (whose job is to watch every word) would say that every word is a choice and every choice communicates different values and emphases. Language tactics help include and exclude certain concepts from an argument. What Google is trying to do here is reframe the concept of behavioral targeting into a concept that sounds softer and more friendly. It is wrestling with the larger problem of how to align advertiser and consumer interests in a convincing way.
On the other hand, Google can't help being Google. The Preference tool on the Ad Preferences page feels like an infinite tree of choices. Every category telescopes open to evermore granular ones you can add to the profile.
In response to last week's exploration of BlueKai's system, Scott Milener of AdRocket said "These dreams of consumers managing their 'ad' profiles is absurd - will NEVER happen en masse. People just want to ignore ads." This is true now, of course. And in the end, these sorts of preferences sites may just be like privacy policies, more for show and ass-covering than for real use.
Google made a fair pitch in the video for letting the consumer use "my cookie." But the benefit here remains too imprecise to inspire a consumer to opt-into anything -- let alone help them build my profile. Rhetoric can only be so effective in compelling action. If I am going to be Google's "partner," I think I'd prefer to be the silent kind.