The Return Of Opt-Out Man: Chaos Before Clarity?

As the public profile of online behavioral targeting rises, the search for consumer-friendly ways of addressing the technology, privacy and opt-out procedures accelerates as well. Multiple projects seem to be running in parallel. The IAB is working on standardized ad labeling, explanatory language and procedures that content providers and ad networks can deploy. A number of moving pieces are involved in making this system work, we are told, but some elements are being tested with consumers now. I keep hearing that we will see some evidence of this project on sites and in ads sometime early next year.

None too soon. The consumer interest in BT has shaken up publishers enough that many now are trying to address the issue of user control over data. For now at least, this amounts to a staggering cacophony of voices and competing terms. After several months off from his usual patrol of privacy policies and opt-out programs online, Opt-Out Man put his cape back on this week to do a flyover of publisher and network responses to the growing concerns about user tracking.

Opt-Out Man wishes the industry could settle on a euphemism. Everyone is running away from "behavioral targeting" about as fast as Democrats in Congress now dodge the term "public option," but no one can settle on reasonably non-threatening language. The major search and content networks are all over the place. Earlier this year Google introduced us to the idea of "interest-based advertising," and a hard-to-find Ad Preferences setting in user accounts. Months later the Ad Preferences area is still hard to find. The explanatory video is the same. And the tree of opt-out and opt-in options is still too complex for most users. But worse for Google, I am not sure if the company's cookie is working properly. Despite my habitual use of its search box, its iGoogle portal and countless AdSense partners, the Preferences page says it isn't tracking a thing on me.

Yahoo gives us a choice of two alternatives to BT, "ad matching" and "ad customization." It doesn't matter, really. In either case the "Ad Match Opt-Out" page is just another small-type notification page that is as consumer-friendly as a side-effects note from pharmaceutical manufacturers. Yahoo also gives users no granular control over their profile here.

Microsoft calls BT "personalized advertising" on a page that is only marginally better than Yahoo's. Microsoft does more carefully explain the data that is being gathered. The company also admits in its explanation that opting out of ad targeting is not opting out of tracking. Microsoft will still collect information on your habits. You will get personalized content, but not targeted ads. In recognition of Microsoft's own cross-platform ambitions, theirs is the only service I have seen that allows you to opt out of targeting on any device. One button can opt out of all log-ins involving a Windows Live ID.

AOL has "Mr. Penguin," the cartoon character it introduced earlier this year to explain BT to users. To the penguin's credit, the one-minute video does a credible job of walking the user through the cookie and tracking process. It is a lot more efficient than Google's antiseptic white-board treatment. AOL also pushes people over to the SafetyClicks blog, which is more geared toward parents protecting their kids from unsuitable content, cyber-bullying and social network faux pas. Unlike Microsoft, which volunteers a cross-platform opt-out, AOL loses the user in a morass of ad networks. AOL Advertising has its own cookie opt-out. Another AOL page pushes you to the NAI. For the consumer unacquainted with AOL's business model, which spans content and advertising, it is entirely unclear what you are opting out from.

The NAI has revised its opt-out page with a video illustrating the opt-out process. They call BT "behavioral advertising services" in a workmanlike video that makes Google and AOL's seem like sculpted Super Bowl ads -- although the video itself is labeled as an AOL production. The scripts sounds like it is being read from a privacy policy, and I am still replaying the section referencing what cookies this opt out does and does not cover. The cookie tracker at NAI, which is good, lets you know which of the members is tracking you, and offers more info on each and an opt-out button. Alas, the pop-up information boxes for the various network members remain useless to the consumer. I still don't get why the ad networks would fill this space with marketing boilerplate descriptions that are aimed at clients rather than consumers.

This is the industry that gave us Don Draper, right? Creativity and consumer relationships are the backbone of advertising, yes? Publishing is all about editorial innovation and compelling storytelling, no? I can only guess that the current opt-out routines are a holding maneuver by some publishers as they await standardized buttons, language and explanations from the consortium of ad associations now working on the problem. Or at least I hope these opt-out programs are placeholders for something that actually speaks to consumers clearly, collaboratively, about their ownership over data. As it stands, it looks as if most of the major online publishing entities are barely trying to open an honest conversation with users about their data.

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2 comments about "The Return Of Opt-Out Man: Chaos Before Clarity?".
  1. Catherine Dwyer from Pace University , October 16, 2009 at 3:42 p.m.

    "This is the industry that gave us Don Draper, right? Creativity and consumer relationships are the backbone of advertising, yes?"
    Well said! If you compare how a "real life" salesperson treats customers (politely, respecting their dignity) with the actions of targeted ads (want to fix your yellow teeth? want to get rid of those wrinkles?), the gap is enormous. Real salespeople are polite. Targeted ads are at best paternalistic, at worst intrusive, boorish, and annoying.
    To understand how behavioral targeting can be more "polite," I would recommend learning about "polite computing" on Brian Whitworth's site - http://brianwhitworth.com/

  2. Howie Goldfarb from Blue Star Strategic Marketing , October 28, 2009 at 10:21 a.m.

    Just curious if any of this matters for people who use Ad Blocking software. I have to assume the software still BT's users, but that the Ads just don't show up. Isn't that the ultimate opt-out? Trust me I have many ethical thoughts pertaining to its free so I should see Ads. Yet on the other hand I have no control over the type or volume of Ads shown to me. And I am also not being offered the choice of paying for content (though I do pay for internet access). So this is a dilemma. Glad your discussing it!