DMA Says Complaints Show Confusion About Ad Targeting

Consumers don't accurately distinguish between behaviorally targeted ads and other types of online ads, according to the Direct Marketing Association's annual ethics compliance report.

Between February 2012 and June of this year, the DMA received more than 300 complaints about purported “online behavioral advertising” -- or ad-targeting based on data collected across more than one site. But the DMA says in its report, released on Wednesday, that the vast majority of those complaints were actually about untargeted ads -- especially ads for dating sites.

“Consumers might think that something they're seeing when they go to a Web site is a targeted ad to them, but actually it's an ad that you can't opt out of,” says Senny Boone, general counsel to the DMA. The DMA, like other industry groups, requires companies to notify consumers about online behavioral advertising and allow them to opt out of receiving behaviorally targeted ads. But the trade group doesn't require companies to allow people to opt out of other types of banner or search ads.

Boone says the DMA decided that the consumers were mistaken after questioning the advertisers about their ad-targeting techniques. Many of the subjects of complaints told the DMA that they serve ads based on data like users' locations, but not their Web-surfing history, according to Boone.

It's unclear why the consumers believed that they had viewed behaviorally targeted ads in those cases. People who complained to the DMA about behavioral targeting typically did so through an online form at its site or the one run by the umbrella group Digital Advertising Alliance. One way that consumers reach the DAA's site is by clicking on the AdChoices icon -- which is present on behaviorally targeted ads and aims to informs Web users about the technique. But Boone says consumers could also have come to the DAA's site through search engines, or other mechanisms.

Around 30 people who complained about online behavioral advertising accurately identified the type of ads they had seen, according to Boone. Some of that group said they had problems opting out of receiving ads targeted based on behavior.

The DMA said that one complaint “led us to learn that there might be some technical issues in opting out of some targeted ads.”

The DMA also said that in some cases, antivirus software interfered with the opt-out cookies. The organization “provided consumers with tips on how to ensure that their OBA opt-out process would be honored by changing their cookie preferences,” according to the report.

The current opt-out system relies on cookies, but privacy-conscious consumers often delete their cookies. That's one of the reasons why the Federal Trade Commission called for Web companies to develop a more permanent do-not-track mechanism. All of the browser companies now offer a do-not-track header that communicates users' preferences to publishers and ad networks. But Web companies haven't been able to reach a consensus about how to respond to those browser-based headers

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1 comment about "DMA Says Complaints Show Confusion About Ad Targeting".
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  1. Lisa Gansky from White Ops, August 1, 2013 at 10:59 a.m.

    Are consumers not accurately distinguishing between ads because the privacy icon is showing up where it shouldn't? I suspect this occurs more often than industry folks would like to admit.

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