The centerpiece of the ad industry's self-regulatory privacy program are the “you-are-being-targeted” icons -- small symbols consisting of a lower case i inside a triangle on its side, which typically say "AdChoices" and appear in the top corner of behaviorally targeted ads.
Consumers who click on the icons are taken to a page where they can learn more about online behavioral advertising -- or how companies mine users' Web-surfing history in order to serve them ads -- and opt out of that form of advertising.
Those icons are now served in 1 trillion ad impressions each month, Interactive Advertising Bureau general counsel Michael Zaneis recently told Congress.
But a pair of studies released today by researchers from Carnegie Mellon University cast doubt on whether the icons effectively inform Web users about data-based advertising.
For one of the reports, researchers tested how 1,500 Web users interpreted the icons, taglines and landing pages. The results don't tell of a shining success.
"The icons, taglines, and landing pages fell short both in terms of notifying participants about OBA and clearly informing participants about their choices," the report states.
Specifically, most users "mistakenly believed that ads would pop up if they clicked on disclosure icons and taglines." Additionally, the majority of users -- 63% -- wrongly believed that opting out would stop online tracking; instead, most ad networks only promise to stop sending targeted ads to people who opt out (though some also stop tracking those users).
And, in what is probably the report's most unexpected finding, many people thought that clicking on the disclosures would enable them to purchase ads.
Researchers showed study participants a mock-up of NYTimes.com that contained ads with different versions of icons and taglines, including "AdChoices," (the most common one used by advertisers), "Why did I get this ad?," "Learn about your ad choices," and "SponsorAd" (used by researchers as a control for the study). The report found that "Why did I get this ad" and "Learn about your ad choices" better conveyed the icons' purpose than AdChoices or SponsorAd.
"'AdChoices,' which is a meaningless contraction, performed similarly to our control tagline, 'Sponsor ads,' with 45% of participants believing that the purpose of these two taglines was to communicate the availability of advertising space for sale," states the report. "We suggest avoiding the use of meaningless phrases or contractions, which might be perceived by users more as a brand than as something informing them about OBA."
The second report released today, "Smart, Useful, Scary, Creepy: Perceptions of Online Behavioral Advertising," draws on interviews with 48 people about their views of behavioral targeting.
As with the other study, the results show that many people don't accurately interpret the icons or landing pages. Researchers showed icons to participants and then questioned them about the icon. Only five out of 48 thought the icon was aimed at informing users about tailored ads. None thought the purpose was to tell people about online data collection.
Ten study participants thought the icons were aimed at advertisers, with one saying that the icon resembled "a 'place ad here' kind of thing."
That study also showed an ambivalence regarding behavioral targeting, with many respondents saying that they liked the idea of receiving useful ads, but had concerns about potential privacy problems. One respondent offered this analysis: "I think the idea’s good, but I don’t like the fact that I feel like it’s an invasion of your privacy. It makes me feel very insecure. Like if this is what people can figure out about me, then what else can they get off my computer?”