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.
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.
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.