Transparency. Choice. Control. These have been the rallying cries of the self-regulatory efforts the online ad industry started deploying late last year around online behavioral advertising (OBA). The most visible piece of this effort is supposed to be the appearance of the Advertising Options icon supported by the Digital Advertising Alliance. I am still trying to capture one of these things in the wild, although I know that ad units powered by Evidon and DoubleVerify are out there. TRUSTe is also approved by the DAA to use the icon. But the little buggers are hard to come by in one's random travels. And it is still unclear how this new system of consumer notification of behavioral targeting will also net some key information about how much consumers want to take control of their privacy.
Ad verification provider DoubleVerify is folding the Ad Choice solution into its larger product, and so far is deploying about 5 billion ad impressions a month containing the icon out of the 35 billion it verifies, says CEO Oren Netzer. "We have about 40 clients either live or going live," with the icon, he says. "It is still a drop in the sea," he admits.
But what does the "drop" show us so far about consumer willingness to interact with OBA background data and opt-out? In their latest metrics, DoubleVerify found that 100,000 of the 5 billion (or .002%) clicked through on the icon for more information about who sent the ad, etc. That response seems remarkably light considering the increased profile of OBA and the level of concern we tend to presume consumers have over being tracked. Whether the Ad Choice icons are being seen, understood or cared about is anyone's guess.
But compared to the share of people electing to opt out of OBA, the number of initial click-throughs is enormous. Only 1% of those who clicked for more information ended up opting out. "The interaction rates are low and I think consistent with panels in previous studies," says Netzer. "The number of people who look to opt out is very small." There is, however, some much larger curiosity relative to the opt-outs. "Ninety-nine percent of the people read the information and are not interested in opting out," he says.
It would be a mistake to conclude at this point that the low interactions with the icons suggests audience disinterest. The number of the ads a consumer sees is relatively negligible. And if many of us have trained our browsing eye to be blind to ad creative, then what chance do ephemeral icons have? The hope is that over time the icon becomes familiar enough to signal a user that specific ads are responding to previous behaviors. As we have seen, at least in some anecdotal evidence after the holiday shopping season, users are starting to recognize retargeting especially. One has to wonder, however, if icons are enough without a more full-throated promotional campaign that calls attention to the symbol and what it means. While it is still very early in the game of executing the Ad Choice program, Netzer says some challenges have already become apparent. The issue of icon "collision" has emerged. What happens when multiple behaviorally targeted ad units appear on the same page and icons appear adjacent to one another? Collision guidelines ask for the icon to appear in the upper right to provide uniformity and some clarity. But this little item creates its own issue with older creative that may have key elements in that corner of the unit. Especially thorny is the pharmaceutical ads, says Netzer, because they have to accommodate FDA requirement for posting warnings and disclosures.
On the agency side, he says the number of conversations have picked up and "we're definitely seeing a lot of responsibility from agencies and brands about this." But in terms of policy, the buyers remain both tentative and unsure how the self-regulation structure really plays out with what may be the ultimate arbiter. "A lot of the privacy officers are still waiting for guidance from the FTC," Netzer says. After the Commission came out in December criticizing the industry for moving too slowly on self-regulation and floating notions of a Do Not track list, the advertisers and agencies were left uncertain. "I hear a lot of confusion with privacy officers that they are waiting to get guidance from the FTC."