Asking The Right Privacy Questions
Ask anyone whether he or she wants advertising wrapped around a TV show, slipped atop a Web page or crammed into massive blocks of radio air-time, and the answer is now, and always has been, a resounding, "no." And yet we live in and buy into a mediaverse that remains supported fundamentally by the practices we say we don't like. If such surveys of consumer attitudes towards advertising are to be believed, then Americans immerse themselves in experiences and environments that on some level they resent because of the horrors of advertising. What are we to make of such anomalies? Are the attitudes towards advertising actually more subtle than a simple blunt question about it reveals? Are there any questions a surveyor could ask that would get us closer to the consumer ambivalence about marketing messages?
And so, when a group of academic researchers released the provocatively titled report last week, "American Reject Tailored Advertising," some in the digital marketing world wondered whether the survey was asking the right questions. The study claims to be the broadest nationwide phone survey (landline and wireless) yet, which avoids skewing results to Web users only or the age bias some say is built into landline phone polls. The core question asked was this: "Please tell me whether or not you want the websites you visit to show you ads that are tailored to your interests." The results have been reported widely -- but to reiterate, 66% of adult Americans said they did not want marketers to tailor ads to their interests.
One might ask, well, isn't this another way of asking whether people want advertising at all, to which the answer is predictable? The lead researcher on the project, Joseph Turow, Ph.D, Professor of Communications at the Annenberg School for Communications, University of Pennsylvania, tells me the team from Annenberg and UC Berkeley Center for Law and Technology "really tried pretty hard to come up with phraseology that wouldn't scare people." The survey was designed to test some of the specific claims behavioral targeting makes about its consumer benefits. "We tried to disaggregate the two issues, whether people liked relevant ads and what people think about behavioral targeting. We were specifically looking at an assertion that people are making in the advertising industry every day - that behavioral targeting is important because people want tailored advertising."
If the survey is a referendum on the appeal of behavioral targeting, then consumers clearly rejected the practice as it was posed to them here. When asked if they would want tailored advertising served to them at Web sites if one of three kinds of user tracking was used to target the ads, the rate of rejection went even higher, between 73% and 87%. Even when assured that the tracking would be done anonymously, 68% said they "definitely" would not allow BT if given the choice. I won't recite every stat in the study here, but the full results are available online.
But is this the right structure for getting at an understanding of consumer attitudes, counters Jeff Hirsch, CEO Audience Science. "It is important for us to gauge consumers' attitudes -- but to do so in a way that helps us understand the consumer's point of view," he argues. "The survey doesn't offer the consumer a way to understand the value." Is a blunt question about wanting or not wanting "tailored advertising" meaningful to a person without consideration of the realistic alternatives like untargeted advertising? Can a simple survey question like this really reflect the attitudes that are embedded in our own real-world behaviors?
After all, the utility of "tailored advertising" is more obvious to any of us when we consider our favorite niche hobby magazine. How many of us pick up the (thinner than in the past, but still relatively) thick September issues of fashion magazines because the advertising is at least as entertaining and informative to us as the editorial? For beading, photo, gun or cooking magazines and Web sites, for instance, aren't the targeted ads almost an expected part of the content? If consumers were to be reminded of their own media consumption behaviors in this regard, would their answer to a question about tailored advertising be different?
Hirsch makes the good point that getting at real attitudes takes a cluster of questions that also educate or contextualize the question. "We need to ask questions in several different ways that educate and offer choices as a way to tease out consumer attitudes. I would encourage any survey to ask questions in several ways to push out what the consumer attitudes are and get to a complete lack of bias."
Turow says that while this survey was trying to test the industry hypothesis about "tailored advertising," he has done previous attitudinal surveys that do offer the consumer a range of scenarios designed to get into the nuance of sentiment around advertising. Respondents were offered the choice of going to their favorite sites for a fee without ads, or getting the content for free but having their activities tracked anonymously for targeting purposes. "A small percentage would take it for free and be tracked -- but a higher percentage would look for another site." He has seen many respondent say they would rather leave the Web altogether than be tracked. "When you give people the trade-off, they don't accept the trade," he says.
And the data suggests that behavioral targeting as it is perceived now, is a clear bogey that consumers reject. Turow and co. found that 63% of users felt that all Web sites should be required by law to delete information about their user's Internet activity.
Turow does not feel the research discredits behavioral targeting as a practice, but indicates how much users want control over the way data are collected. "People know they are being tracked and that advertisers are looking at them, and they are nervous about it. People have no clue about data mining or how the dots can be connected."
He suggests advertisers be more forthcoming and engage the consumer with better ways of managing their own data. "I think for the good of the advertising business, people have to be brought into the process. Can you create regimens where people are respected?" For Turow, "respect means reciprocity" - "If you take my information, I want to know what you will do with it and allow me to selectively tell you what I want you to use or not use. It's not really an issue of whether people should be followed or not or are people spoiled [online]. It's an issue of respect and reciprocity. There is a lot of value in letting people into the process if it is done correctly."
In just a few weeks, that exact point will be taken up at OMMA AdNets on Nov. 3 in New York. Our noon panel, "Facing Up to Privacy: Challenge or Opportunity," will explore how publishers and advertisers can address the issue of user data in ways that enhance rather than threaten relationships with your audiences.