Commentary

Journal Throws in the Towel on Online Ad Revenue

You would have to have been living under a rock not to have gotten caught up in the WSJ series of stories on ad tracking. With childlike wonderment the less-than-transparent-to-those-they-interviewed Journal reporters declared that (gasp!) online audiences are being tracked, often without their knowledge (although it has been going on for nearly a decade and a half) and that (hope you are sitting down for this) a business has grown up around the collection and commerce of user data. There was a significant glossing over of industry and individual company efforts to try and educate consumers about ad tracking and the multiple ways they can stop it if they wish.

The net effect of the story -- perhaps the intent all along -- was to scare the shit out of people who have more to fear from the offline collection of totally personally identifiable data that happens every day from their grocery store or credit card loyalty programs to the buying and selling of subscription lists. Would that the Journal put the same effort into "investigating" that kind of data collection and lack of transparency to the consumer, but it is just not as sexy as the Internet that crawls with dangers from pedophiles, viruses, identity theft, bogus get-rich offers from overseas and Muslim extremist Web sites. Oh, and naked people.

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What might have been more productive is if the Journal had been straight up on the intent of their series and collected some of the really brilliant ideas floating around about consumer disclosure (such as the one that quite suddenly appeared on the Journal-owned All Things Digital site.) But they don't give as many Pulitzer's for coming up with progressive ideas to solve problems as they do for scaring the shit out of people, however unnecessary to begin with.

Perhaps since the Journal gets an online sub fee they think they are exempt from the rules they smack the rest of the industry on the nose about. But in passing through their pay wall, they collect your personally identifiable information, like your name, credit card number, and address. According to their privacy policy, which hasn't been updated in two years, they sell that PII to their advertisers, and yes -- they reserve the right to marry it to online data they collect along with their 64 third-party partners. Transparency indeed.

So, after scaring the shit out of people who have little appreciation for the trade-off between free content and advertising (hell, everyone wants everything on the Web to be free -- AND free of ads) they ask in a poll if people think it is OK to trade data for relevant ads or if "they know too much about me!!!!" And (fasten your seat belts) over 70 percent are afraid of Big Brother the ad tracker. I guess that just proves they were right all along.

Not really. Ask anyone, anytime if they like ANYTHING about advertising and you will get an overwhelmingly negative response.

Unless you are in the ad industry, you have no use for ads (except the ones that tell you about new products you might like, items on sale at local retailers, ideas for Christmas and Mother's Day -- oh, and for whatever you are in-market for at the moment.) Okay, okay, you'll sit still for ads (or better yet, fast-forward through them) if they mean you don't have to pay to see individual TV shows. Or pay $450 for a subscription to your favorite magazine. Or they are kind of fun, like the recent Old Spice ads. And isn't it interesting that in spite of the nearly universal revulsion toward advertising, it has grown into about a $150-billion-a-year business (and most humorously, pays the salary of all the Journal reporters).

Just the concept of being "tracked" is creepy to nearly everyone. And the industry can certainly do a better job of helping consumers understand more easily and more clearly what data is being collected about them and what it is being used for. And if we don't do it, Washington will. But I will wager that even if complete disclosure was adopted across the Web in a shoulder-to-shoulder, universal effort, you could still ask folks how they feel about ad tracking or advertising in general and you will still get the "Oh my god, the heavens are falling!!!" reaction. Which is pretty much all the Journal did.

9 comments about "Journal Throws in the Towel on Online Ad Revenue".
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  1. Steven Kane from LuckyLabs, August 6, 2010 at 2:28 p.m.

    Jeez, chill out.

    If the practices described in the WSJ articles are as painfully obvious, and consumers are as knowledgable and sanguine, as you believe, what do you have to be so frantic and sore about?

    There are no privacy issues; there are only disclosure issues. If consumers are fairly told about data collection and usage practices and policies -- and allowed to opt out, easily and permanently -- then, caveat emptor.

    Otherwise -- and the world IS otherwise -- the WSJ did us all a great service, by both publishing their material, and stimulating renewed debate.

  2. George Simpson from George H. Simpson Communications, August 6, 2010 at 4:51 p.m.

    I could not agree more. But they were a little less than transparent themselves about their mission in their reporting with dozens of companies. Plus in TV interviews and in their own videos, Journal reporters are a little loose with the facts.

  3. Scott Cohen from Red Tie Media, August 6, 2010 at 5:03 p.m.

    So if I understand it, the WSJ is participating in this data driven marketplace. And guess what, if they refused -- they would be getting a lot less ad dollars.

  4. Max Kalehoff from SocialCode, August 6, 2010 at 6 p.m.

    Spot on. You've got to question motive: link bait?

  5. Bob Sacco from Travel Ad Network/Travora Media, August 6, 2010 at 6:05 p.m.

    Nice job G-Simpson...

    Our industry needs guys like you whom call-it-like-it-is.

    I find it refreshing and satisfying.

  6. Irene Lopez from Trivessa, August 6, 2010 at 7:39 p.m.

    Amen! There is so much data out there accessible to marketers that IS personally identifiable - the data tracked online is tame in comparison. As a digital ad sales person, I always shake my head when I read these articles because John and Jane Q. Public understand very little and totally overreact!

  7. Rick Welch from DataLogix, August 7, 2010 at 3:51 p.m.

    Many of my personal reactions to this recent debate have been voiced here -- great work!

    WSJ absolutely stands to gain if audience targeting falters, as they would love the world to stay in a contextual state of mind when it comes to ad buying.

    I do, however, agree with the suggestions brought up at the summits: that we as data providers & data buyers need to become more transparent; potentially offering incentive-based collection as well as disclosure (displaying logos on data-driven ads).

    That being said, most companies are participating in NAI, & IAB. So, there are still a few bringing the lot of us down -- I think self-regulation will end up being enough to appease the masses.

    Personally I feel that the gov't (and journalists) should re-focus on more threatening and serious issues: scams, actually responding to BBB complaints, etc... just my humble opinion.

  8. Bill Brazell from WIT Strategy, August 9, 2010 at 6:31 a.m.

    Mr. Kane, you're undoubtedly right that "there are only disclosure issues." And one of George's main points is that the Journal failed outright in its disclosure. Nowhere in the text of these fear-mongering stories does the Journal reveal that, *alone* among the Top 50 publishers it describes, the Journal collects and sells Personally Identifiable Information.

    That's no minor ethical lapse. That disclosure taints every single story in which it doesn't appear. The WSJ is failing to tell you that it has a vested interest in scaring people about the targeting that helps keep most of the Web free -- because it wants people to pay to read it. Shame on the Journal, and shame on us if we fail to protest that kind of manipulation. It's George Simpson who has done us a service.

  9. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, August 9, 2010 at 7:33 p.m.

    Who owns the WSJ and in what does he believe? "My money is mine and your money is mine. Is there anything else?"

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