Asking The Right Privacy Questions

Ask anyone whether he or she wants advertising wrapped around a TV show, slipped atop a Web page or crammed into massive blocks of radio air-time, and the answer is now, and always has been, a resounding, "no." And yet we live in and buy into a mediaverse that remains supported fundamentally by the practices we say we don't like. If such surveys of consumer attitudes towards advertising are to be believed, then Americans immerse themselves in experiences and environments that on some level they resent because of the horrors of advertising. What are we to make of such anomalies? Are the attitudes towards advertising actually more subtle than a simple blunt question about it reveals? Are there any questions a surveyor could ask that would get us closer to the consumer ambivalence about marketing messages?



And so, when a group of academic researchers released the provocatively titled report last week, "American Reject Tailored Advertising," some in the digital marketing world wondered whether the survey was asking the right questions. The study claims to be the broadest nationwide phone survey (landline and wireless) yet, which avoids skewing results to Web users only or the age bias some say is built into landline phone polls. The core question asked was this: "Please tell me whether or not you want the websites you visit to show you ads that are tailored to your interests." The results have been reported widely -- but to reiterate, 66% of adult Americans said they did not want marketers to tailor ads to their interests.

One might ask, well, isn't this another way of asking whether people want advertising at all, to which the answer is predictable? The lead researcher on the project, Joseph Turow, Ph.D, Professor of Communications at the Annenberg School for Communications, University of Pennsylvania, tells me the team from Annenberg and UC Berkeley Center for Law and Technology "really tried pretty hard to come up with phraseology that wouldn't scare people." The survey was designed to test some of the specific claims behavioral targeting makes about its consumer benefits. "We tried to disaggregate the two issues, whether people liked relevant ads and what people think about behavioral targeting. We were specifically looking at an assertion that people are making in the advertising industry every day - that behavioral targeting is important because people want tailored advertising."

If the survey is a referendum on the appeal of behavioral targeting, then consumers clearly rejected the practice as it was posed to them here. When asked if they would want tailored advertising served to them at Web sites if one of three kinds of user tracking was used to target the ads, the rate of rejection went even higher, between 73% and 87%. Even when assured that the tracking would be done anonymously, 68% said they "definitely" would not allow BT if given the choice. I won't recite every stat in the study here, but the full results are available online.

But is this the right structure for getting at an understanding of consumer attitudes, counters Jeff Hirsch, CEO Audience Science. "It is important for us to gauge consumers' attitudes -- but to do so in a way that helps us understand the consumer's point of view," he argues. "The survey doesn't offer the consumer a way to understand the value." Is a blunt question about wanting or not wanting "tailored advertising" meaningful to a person without consideration of the realistic alternatives like untargeted advertising? Can a simple survey question like this really reflect the attitudes that are embedded in our own real-world behaviors?

After all, the utility of "tailored advertising" is more obvious to any of us when we consider our favorite niche hobby magazine. How many of us pick up the (thinner than in the past, but still relatively) thick September issues of fashion magazines because the advertising is at least as entertaining and informative to us as the editorial?  For beading, photo, gun or cooking magazines and Web sites, for instance, aren't the targeted ads almost an expected part of the content? If consumers were to be reminded of their own media consumption behaviors in this regard, would their answer to a question about tailored advertising be different?

Hirsch makes the good point that getting at real attitudes takes a cluster of questions that also educate or contextualize the question. "We need to ask questions in several different ways that educate and offer choices as a way to tease out consumer attitudes. I would encourage any survey to ask questions in several ways to push out what the consumer attitudes are and get to a complete lack of bias."

Turow says that while this survey was trying to test the industry hypothesis about "tailored advertising," he has done previous attitudinal surveys that do offer the consumer a range of scenarios designed to get into the nuance of sentiment around advertising. Respondents were offered the choice of going to their favorite sites for a fee without ads, or  getting the content for free but having their activities tracked anonymously for targeting purposes. "A small percentage would take it for free and be tracked -- but a higher percentage would look for another site." He has seen many respondent say they would rather leave the Web altogether than be tracked. "When you give people the trade-off, they don't accept the trade," he says.

And the data suggests that behavioral targeting as it is perceived now, is a clear bogey that consumers reject. Turow and co. found that 63% of users felt that all Web sites should be required by law to delete information about their user's Internet activity.

Turow does not feel the research discredits behavioral targeting as a practice, but indicates how much users want control over the way data are collected. "People know they are being tracked and that advertisers are looking at them, and they are nervous about it. People have no clue about data mining or how the dots can be connected."

He suggests advertisers be more forthcoming and engage the consumer with better ways of managing their own data. "I think for the good of the advertising business, people have to be brought into the process. Can you create regimens where people are respected?" For Turow, "respect means reciprocity" - "If you take my information, I want to know what you will do with it and allow me to selectively tell you what I want you to use or not use. It's not really an issue of whether people should be followed or not or are people spoiled [online]. It's an issue of respect and reciprocity. There is a lot of value in letting people into the process if it is done correctly."

In just a few weeks, that exact point will be taken up at OMMA AdNets on Nov. 3 in New York. Our noon panel, "Facing Up to Privacy: Challenge or Opportunity," will explore how publishers and advertisers can address the issue of user data in ways that enhance rather than threaten relationships with your audiences.



5 comments about "Asking The Right Privacy Questions".
Check to receive email when comments are posted.
  1. Robert Leathern from, Inc., October 9, 2009 at 4:50 p.m.

    I agree that if no choice or tradeoff is being given to the consumer, it's almost impossible to pull apart the desire to not see advertising (which often gets in the way of us doing other things online or interrupts our content on television) from a grudging realization that it may be necessary and then just rather seeing something that is more relevant to one's interests. I would say that the market has already (in some way) determined that targeted online advertising is much more valuable, with search advertising resulting in $3.24 of ad spend per 1 hour of user time online and all other online advertising generating just $0.21 per user hour. The money would not flow if it didn't work for consumers and advertisers alike. <a href="">Television advertising generates $0.20 per user hour</a> and so the largely-context or site-targeted online ad world really doesnt' do much better at targeting and generating ad revenue than does television. The 16-fold gap between the two should be narrowed by better targeting of ads to needs (not really interests - nobody is interested in ads, except maybe a few of us reading this kind of pub!). BTW I'd also point out it would be worthwhile reading some of the other studies the authors of the research have written to get a sense of their own predispositions.

  2. Dan Ortega from Hyperdyme Systems, October 10, 2009 at 11:08 a.m.

    The real question that should have been asked is "You're going to get advertising whether you like it or not. Do you want the ads to be relevant, or irrelevant?" There is a huge bias against advertising in general within the academic community, and the behavioral targeting industry has relinquished the moral high ground to the privacy advocates. Expect to see a lot more of this stilted ranting in the months to come.

  3. Jeffrey Chester from CDD, October 10, 2009 at 12:26 p.m.

    Might I suggest to Mr. Hirsch and others that as the public becomes aware of the wide ranging and intrusive online data collection/profiling system--offering, as Mr. Hirsch's company does, the ability of marketers to track and target us for our financial and health online behaviors (let alone our racial/ethnic backgrounds)--there will be even greater concern about online profiling and tracking. Behavioral targeting, as you know, is part of a complex data collection system involving the use rich media, social media marketing, and the growing use of offline databases, etc. Instead of trying to fight reasonable consumer safeguards, we hope the online ad industry will work with us to craft policies that can help the industry prosper, but also protect us as citizens and consumers.

  4. Warren Lee from WHL Consulting, October 12, 2009 at 12:58 p.m.

    Thanks for the articulate discussion of the BT space Steve and for the insightful comments Jeff, Dan and Rob. Lots to comment on here, and I would like to focus on the economics of the internet. The old days of spray and prey are over, the ads simply don't pay enough for the content that we enjoy for free. If we are to keep the online economy functioning then adding more value to ads shown is important. The industry, in general, is doing a good job protecting privacy, delivering ads anonymously and attempting to keep the services (news, social, etc.) free.

    When surveys like this one come out, I always wonder how the results would change if one simple concept were mentioned: Would you like either ads targeted anonymously to your interests, with privacy protections in place or would you rather pay each site that you get content from somewhere between $2 and $20 per month? At the recent OMMA Global confab in NYC, several content providers stated that they would capture about 10% of their current user base if they put a subscription business model in place. To me that represents a heck of a disparity between 66% who don't want to be tracked for advertising and 10% who are really willing to pay for some (not all) of the content that they consume online. I guess the delta (56% or so) figure that they just do not have to pay no matter what.

    I would also like a different question put in these surveys: What online behavior of yours do you not want tracked, saved or leaked? I'll bet the answer to that question would go a long way to clearing up what the online community's real concerns revolve around.

  5. Kim Schaumann from Line-of-Sight, November 2, 2009 at 6:13 a.m.

    Maybe we in Denmark can learn from you in the US, and maybe you will be interested in helping us asking consumers the right questions about online ads and tracking. In return you will be given an interesting case from an advanced economy with many similarities to the American economy.

    We have exactly the same debate coming up in Denmark as you have concerning tailored marketing and surveillance of consumers. The Danish Consumer Council has invited to a meeting at 18 November about third-party cookies.

    This has made some of us working in the field of Public Relations and marketing think of launching a short web-based survey prior to the meeting asking consumers questions about advertising and tracking in order to enrich the debate. We consider building the survey around the four main ways that online display ads are served: 1) context based, 2) behavioral based, 3) search/intent based and 4) social based. Our consideration is to ask consumers how they want their ads.

    We would welcome any inspiration from you and the readers of this post on how to design a fair and interesting survey. Thank you.

Next story loading loading..