The Male Organ -- And Other Reasons To Avoid Behavioral Targeting

Two weeks ago, I spoke lovingly of my father. Last week, my mom got the praise. But I'm devoting this week's column to making fun of myself.

Here's the backstory: I'm out at dinner with my fiancé and his friend. We're talking about odd movie moments, and a memory stirs. I say, "What was that movie where that guy had a penis rocking-chair in the basement that you could sit on and it went up and down?"

Our poor friend. What would your reaction be if an about-to-be-married couple started talking about that movie they watched with the penis chair?

You may already know I was referring to the Coen brothers' "Burn After Reading", and the crazy contraption made by George Clooney's slightly demented character. At that moment, though, I couldn't remember the movie at all, not the name, the cast, or the plot. All I knew was that it had a chair in it and it wasn't a porno.

So I Googled "movie penis chair invention basement."



Without going into too much detail, I found the results less than helpful. (My favorite read: "Fifteen Time-Saving Household Inventions.") I figured the inclusion of the male organ was generating a bit of noise, so I tried my query again, sans penis. Success! "Burn After Reading" was the first result.

So now I'm wondering, based on recent search history, what kind of ads are going to be targeted my way (or, more accurately, my fiancé's way, since it was his iPhone I was using). If they use clickstream data, he might be OK, but if they just use his queries, he's going to be hit with some very strange ads over the next few days. And this is just one of the myriad situations in which search behavior may be wholly un-indicative of purchase intent.

Last Wednesday, Wendy Davis eloquently tore apart the arguments for behavioral targeting, quoting "some Web company executives [who] are saying that free content will disappear from the Internet because privacy regulations could have the effect of destroying online advertising."

What?!? Privacy regulations could destroy online advertising? Then how has television survived? Or how has Google managed to get this far, since they've historically only targeted based on the current search?

Look, let's get something straight here: online advertising is not going away, because online is where the people are. Saying that advertisers have to be allowed to target is like saying that lawyers have to be allowed to provoke lawsuits. It's entirely self-serving and patently ridiculous.

I'm actually not inherently opposed to behavioral targeting, but I am vehemently opposed to attempts to frame the argument in misleading ways. The privacy concerns associated with behavioral targeting and the question of whether it should be opt-in have nothing to do with whether advertisers will continue to advertise, and everything to do with serving the best interests of the Internet-using population.

That is the issue at stake. That's what I care about. And that's what needs to remain at the heart of this discussion.

My chair search reminded me of the importance of eliminating noise. Let's get this noise out of the behavioral targeting conversation.

6 comments about "The Male Organ -- And Other Reasons To Avoid Behavioral Targeting".
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  1. Scott Nelson from TruEffect, Inc., August 11, 2009 at 2:50 p.m.

    Thanks for raising this topic! I completely agree the doomsday scenario for behavioral targeting is flogged about way too much, but I am going to respectively disagree with both you and Wendy Davis. Fact – ~8% of measured media dollars are spent through online. Fact – ~29% of media consumed by all of us is obtained through online. We as a group have adopted the web far faster than the people that fund it – the advertisers. So, there’s already significant resistance in the ecosystem to invest more media dollars in interactive. We all can cite reasons for this including complexity and fragmentation of the media process, the failure to properly attribute success to the multiple sources contributing, and a scarcity of high quality inventory that’s simple to buy. Both the search and the cost-per-action economic media model rely heavily on the use of browser technology to operate. Cookies make every browser-based channel work better, but it is vital for these two in particular. (And in case anyone is wondering, measurement is still messed up to the tune of 40% inaccuracy rates even with the luxury of unique, persistent tracking.) Creating a global “opt-in only” scenario will drastically reduce if not eliminate the ability for any media seller to leverage CPA, and it will impair every search engine’s ability to deliver the relevant, timely results we all want. (It’s the data gathered from the unique, persistent tracking of surfing behavior that allows a search engine to discern between “china” the dish and “China” the country.) We see clients “accept” 50% or higher levels of unattributed conversions even though they know through research and sampling that media positively impacted those conversions. Does anyone seriously believe consumers will opt-in for cookie-tracking were that the requirement? Can you fathom the number of hooks and widgets and spam emails that will wash across the web trying to get 300,000,000 people to say it’s “okay” to target ads to me? Doomsday probably not. But, the people responsible for spending $25-$30 Billion in online media over the coming year need more accurate measures of attribution and better results to continue that commitment. Global opt-in may be more like global warming than Armageddon, gradually depriving the ecosystem of the resources it needs to survive. The industry hasn’t developed a satisfactory alternative to the browser cookie for efficient and effective advertising and thus we’ll collectively fail to deliver on our end of the bargain for those making the media allocation decisions. -Scott

  2. Kathryn Wardell from BOLDER Digital Marketing & Media, August 11, 2009 at 4:36 p.m.

    Scott had a strong argument when he suggests that requiring" a global opt-in may well be more like global warming than Armageddon." Face it right now most consumers have a fuzzy idea about cookies and don't really want to bother with opting in or opting out for that matter. But if a poll were taken of consumers on whether or not they wanted the most targeted advertising relevant to their interests, (flyfishing, snowboarding, upcoming concerts etc.) popping up as they surf rather than ads like the continuously annoying dancing girls suggesting they receive a free credit report, which do you think they would opt for? I think there is no question that the greater relevance that behavioral targeting delivers in advertising gives consumers a much better experience on the web and most consumers (if assured that the information was NOT personally identifiable that drove that advertising),would opt to receive the more relevant messsaging and advertising. Three things are certain:
    1) Advertising is here to stay. It is what drives this consumer economy.
    2) The internet is here to stay as it has become an integral part of our lives and more and more advertising dollars are shifting online.
    3) The same technology innovation that created the internet has now created the ability to provide behaviorally targeted relevance in advertising. The technology my friends is out of the bag and well utilized in the marketplace.
    Consumers just need to be educated to appreciate that they are not being tracked by Big Brother when they are served more relevant advertising.

  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, August 11, 2009 at 4:55 p.m.

    Besides that you are on target, where did common sense go? If I were advertiser of movies, I would think you, the searcher may have some interest in my ads. Since you are looking for a trivia, I cannot assume you are looking for chairs or porn. One step further...Do flyfishers use fishing rods? camping equipment? do they brush their teeth? Actually speaking to men (higher percentage of flyfishers) about toothpaste on a flyfishing site might not be a bad idea. Think about it in common sense terms. Gauges are gauges.

  4. Kaila Colbin from Boma Global, August 12, 2009 at 2:28 a.m.

    Thank you all for your thoughtful comments. Thank YOU, John Grey, for the big laugh!

    Scott, I understand that advertising works better (better measured, more accountable, etc) if it can be properly targeted. But even without BT, online is still more quantifiable than any other medium. Complexity and fragmentation of the media process aside, the interactive ad space still represents behavior change, which I believes accounts for the lion's share of the difference between consumer uptake and advertiser uptake. As long as consumers are still flocking to the Web (and away from traditional TV and newspapers), that 8% should continue to grow.

  5. Andrew Boer from MovableMedia, August 14, 2009 at 1:12 p.m.

    I agree that behavioral targeting isn't a privacy issue. It is actually a content issue. Behavioral targeting, taken to its extreme, (rightly, I think) suggests that the specific context of content doesn't matter nearly as much as the aggregate picture of the user.

    This makes content into a commodity, and transfers the value to the owners of the audience data. Publishers (esp. those without highly paid premium content) may believe that behavioral will increase their CPM's in the short run by raising the value of their non-premium content. But ultimately the true effect is to lower the overall value of what was premium content. This puts publishers effectively in the pork-belly business.

  6. Warren Lee from WHL Consulting, August 14, 2009 at 6:17 p.m.

    Ok, this is a great discussion; one that I hope can go to the people in the FCC bolstering our case for reasonable regulations, if any, on Behavioral Targeting.

    John, right on. Good points.

    Kathryn, like preaching to the choir, you really get it, and the point of making ads more relevant, turning them into content resonates well. Thanks.

    Kaila, yup, ever since a company came out with the name "DoubleClick" that has been our cross to bear, and now, with the new systems, measurement has been taken to new heights. To take it a step further, once a definitive way to measure brand lift from branding in digital media, I would imagine a further decline in traditional media dollars as a larger % of media budgets go to our, more measurable, medium.

    And Andrew, who started this discussion in my mind, as Dave Morgan has said many times, and I agree with him, "It is about the individual, not the pageview." Since we are all looking for the same thing: content paid for by advertising, isn't it ok to group buckets of individuals and deliver highly targeted ads to them no mater the site or page that they are on? I think that the overall effect of this would be to raise the average CMP rate as more ad dollars flowed into the digital ecosystem. Yes, you are correct, it will erode the value, somewhat and for a short time, of premium content, until the dollar side catches up.

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