It's been a while since Opt-Out Man has dusted off the browser and spied on the opt-out and privacy management tools in the field. This season brought with it a new crop of self-regulatory initiatives and a more earnest attempt by the industry to cut off regulation with greater transparency. What do some of these things look like, though?
The home base for the new "Power I" or "Advertising Option" icons is www.aboutads.info. These icons now can be seen (although I personally cannot recall seeing one in the wild yet) on some behaviorally targeted ads. It is the product of the Self-Regulatory Program for Online Behavioral Advertising from the coalition of ad and business associations, including the DMA, IAB and 4As.
Explaining BT to ordinary citizens is an unenviable task. Explaining even further the complex interwoven networks of data, serving, targeting and publishing technologies that are behind those ads is nigh impossible. Hell, people in the industry have made an open joke about the inscrutability of it all. The AboutAds site doesn't seem to be breaking any new ground here. Like the similar pages we have seen at the Network Advertising Initiative, Yahoo, MSN and elsewhere, the explanations are cursory and guarded.
"All advertising seeks to target the right products to the right audience, and makes possible low- or no-cost content and services. Most online ads aren't matched to you as an individual, but to data categories -- such as demographics, interest groups, location, or online behavior. The Web sites you visit work with online advertising companies to provide you with advertising that is as relevant and useful as possible."
This pretty much mimics the language at the IAB's Privacy Matters site to which the AboutAds site refers the user. I never found this approach very convincing, because it seems to elide the key concern most people bring to the issue: being followed. Even if you agree that technically the details of these statements are true, they still seem tone-deaf to most people's concerns. Not too many people are all worried about the financial health of media, let alone buy into the idea that tracking technologies online will save them. And while people complain about irrelevant advertising, it is hard to imagine ad relevance is a real motivating factor. Yup, it all boils down for most us to that creepiness you don't want to talk about.
When you drill into the meat of the site for consumers, the consumer choice page, we get something that looks pretty much the same as the NAI opt-out page. There is a lot of language leading to the tool that detects the cookies currently on your system. And as on the NAI site, which also offers a multi-network opt-out mechanism, most of the companies use marketing-speak to describe their companies. I still don't get this. Why are they writing more to potential clients than to consumers?
By the way, while I didn't read all 60 ad company profiles in this mix, the one I found that actually spoke to consumers directly and understandably was Google. "Google shows ads on Google services and sites participating in the Google Display Network. It's our goal to make these ads as relevant and useful as possible for you." Note that they actually start by explaining what they do and how the consumer will experience them. It really isn't that hard.
Arguably, no one in the industry has really broken out of the tortured language and conventions of talking BT to consumers. But I would recommend everyone take a look at the much more user-friendly and straightforward job PrivacyChoice.org is doing. At the very least, the splash image of the consumer doing a fist pump for taking control "gets it." This is about control, so why isn't the industry at large taking the side of the consumer rather than adopting a defensive posture of paternalistically reminding everyone of a media model they all have been engaging with for over a century -- ads support content?
PrivacyChoice at least engages the consumer on her own terms. Now, I do wish that the tools PrivacyChoice offers were more unified. I find the flavors of TrackerBlock, opt-out toolbars, etc. a bit more thorny to track and distinguish than most consumers would want to deal with, Nevertheless, the pages explain themselves in a highly visual manner. The basic policies are broken down into a few key categories like anonymity, data sharing, etc. although I am not sure why these categories are not easily explained in pop-ups on the "Who's Watching" page. Still it seems to me a better start towards using genuine marketing tools to sell consumers on targeting itself.