Whenever digital advertising decides it is time to explain behavioral targeting and walk people through the opt-out process, I usually pop a few coffees first. I know there is a tough slog ahead.
Consider Google’s tortured, multi-tiered “Ads Preferences” site. Because of the extensiveness of the Google reach, it has to parse its explanations into search and Gmail targeting vs. Web targeting. Each category gets its own comfy-cozy we’re-not-really-following-you videos and separate opt-out mechanisms. And of course now there is the +1 recommendation system that requires its own management. Google offers links to the NAI as well as the DAA’s aboutads.info page for opting out. Got that? Good.
While Google still uses “Interest-based” to avoid the term behavioral targeting, Microsoft tries “Personalized Advertising.” To Microsoft’s credit, it has streamlined the explanation considerably since I last checked over a year ago. The company has it boiled down to an efficient Q&A, And like Google, it is are directing you to the DAA site but also offering an opt-out here. They allude to a “My Interests” tool for refining the targeting, but provide no link.
While it may not be comfy-cosy, I actually like Yahoo’s “Ad Interest Manager” best of all, if only because it leads with its knowledge of you. It uses the same nomenclature as Google: “Interest-based ads.” But here the actual settings for your browser are on the front page, with easy on and off switches. Also here is the record of your own search category history and page and topic history, as well as the profile of your browser. In one way, being transparent about what they know about you actually has the positive effect of (accurately or not) suggesting what they don’t know about you. The lesson here is that by being up front about what is being tracked, the network may make an implicit case that anonymous tracking is relatively benign.
There still is some confusion in the opt-out system over who is doing what for whom. For instance, Yahoo’s page links to a rendition of its DAA logo and explanation, as well as a link to the NAI. Again, I am not sure how a typical consumer is supposed to distinguish among all of these entities.
To everyone’s credit, we are starting to see the major ad providers move people toward the DAA aboutads.info site. But in many ways the experience here is no better than it ever was at the NAI site. The principles of OBA are explained well and succinctly enough. We get a scan of the current browser and a tabbed guide to the scores of networks that have you cookied.
Now, arguably, consumers are not going to enter this list of (87 for me) networks and ad technology and data providers and cherry-pick the ones they don’t want. Who among them has the knowledge necessary to know what kinds of data each of these entities collects, from where, and for what use on targeted ads at what sites? The complexity of the internet simply is far beyond the point where this level of transparency is even of use. And yet the individual company descriptions, by and large, still sound like b2b PR-speak that don’t even speak directly to the consumer, let alone explain what data is being collected where and why.
On the other end of the rhetorical spectrum comes a new ad campaign from the DAA consortium to promote the increasingly apparent Ad Choices icon. In this devilishly clever approach, advertisers aren’t tracking you. Instead the right ads are simply trying to find you. In fact the walking skyscraper unit in the splash page to YourAdChoices.com looks downright forlorn as it walks down another blind alley looking for the person who wants to know about “Thai 4 Two.”
The three DAA videos are worth watching if only for the audacious approach, which pretty much frames behavioral (sorry, “interest-based”) advertising as a favor to the consumers. The mildly ironic, bombastic voice of the videos narrates a rapidfire stick figure animation that makes the complex art of user tracking, segmentation and targeting seem light, frothy and, well, awfully good fun. Kids, anyone who wants to see ads for their favorite brands, clap your hands. Hey, as the ad argues, “the Internet is random enough on its own” isn’t it? By the end of these things you are ready to send a thank-you note to the advertising industry for planting cookies, retargeting you relentlessly, and using the accumulated data in ways it can’t even begin to tell you in a 90-second video. In fact, and I can’t make this up, the first spot actually ends with “you can thank the little icon later.”
Talk about a quantum leap in the other direction. For years the ad industry’s attempts to explain its own complex new targeting methods to consumers has been tortured, ham-handed, leaden. At our conferences and in these columns I bemoaned the ironic lack of creativity and messaging skills from an industry that is known for their, well, creativity and messaging skills.
Be careful what you ask for, because I think I got it. Now we have a set of spots that are so slick and perhaps too cagy. The tone and lightweight approach of these messages doesn't even get bogged down in assurance that the data being collected is anonymous. They just diffuse the privacy questions altogether with artful appeals to our ability to “control” the process and the unimaginable advantages of a “customized” Internet experience.
There is even a patina of culture warfare implicit in some of this rhetoric. To demonstrate the beauty of “interest-based advertising,” the second video used as example someone searching for a “killer veggie burrito” who then goes to sports content. Well, that veggie burrito lover apparently doesn’t want to be exposed to the testosterone-laced ads that its spots-oriented context would serve. Wouldn’t he or she prefer an ad for something a little less brutish? Interesting example. What presumptions are the creators making about who is most concerned about behavioral (there I go again) advertising? Jock-averse tree-hugging privacy mavens?
As entertaining and genuinely creative as these spots are, they use humor and tone to evade the concerns of users too overtly. Using a hipper style than the classic DuPont ads and papering on a mock ironic tone, at heart these are still “better life through advertising” pitches. They are hard to believe because you are pretty sure even the messenger doesn’t believe them either.