The Homeland Security-Cookie Connection

Last week I took the PATH train from Jersey City to lower Manhattan on my way to catch my favorite Brooklyn band. On the heels of the London attacks, the threat of terrorism on that train or near my neighborhood has nestled itself in the front of my mind once again after years of slowly regressing. And the tradeoffs between civil liberty-squelching security strategies and protection against further strikes are all too real.

Sure, I resent the fact that heightened security robs me of civil liberties. But I'll tell you this much, when I saw four cops in my car on that train to the World Trade Center station (yep, they still call it that), my peace-of-mind overrode any qualms I had about being watched.

Believe it or not, there are parallels between my commuting experience and the ever-looming cookie quandary that affects behavioral targeting as well as just about every other aspect of online advertising. There's a ubiquitous cry for education about the benefits of cookies as the need to counteract the cookie-deleting Walter Mossbergs of the world increases. But like my fifth grade science teacher Mrs. Grupp used to say, "You can't learn through osmosis. I can't open up your brain and pour the information in." So, how to teach the cookie-ignorant masses? The standard routes for pounding knowledge into people, besides mandatory schooling, are education through the media and PSA-style campaigns. Well, good luck.



Enticing the necessary mainstream media outlets - the USA Todays, the CNNs, the local eyewitness news programs - to focus on the benefits of cookies is unlikely. Not only is the cookie topic complicated and more boring than the discovery of a blond hair in Aruba or a three-alarm fire across town, the pro-cookie subject simply isn't compelling enough. Cookie coverage is bound to be centered on its threats. "What evil lurks in the heart of your computer? Channel 7 on Your Side knows. Film at 11." Count on the fear-mongering, "if it bleeds it leads" mentality almost always winning out.

As for an industry trade group-driven campaign, I can't foresee such an effort outweighing consumer skepticism and negative press. Nancy Reagan tried to target me during my adolescence with her weak Just Say No public service announcements. Anyone who's met me knows that didn't work. Hey, maybe a really brilliant "Got Cookies?" campaign could assuage the cookie-deletion problem, but don't get your hopes up.

So, as I mentioned, there's a connection between the homeland security and cookie dilemmas. Like those cookie-crushing consumers out there who don't want their Web movements tracked, I'm irritated by the police cameras and the bag checking and the Patriot Act and all that stuff infringing on my freedom for the sake of security. But maybe, as on those days I spot cops patrolling my train car, consumers need to be slapped in the face with reality. They need to be shown outright what not having those cookies installed means to the Web experience they take for granted.

When they're served a rich media ad, it could feature a prominent disclaimer demonstrating the benefits of frequency-capping, with copy like, "Sure, this ad is pretty cool, but you don't want to have to see it every time you're here, do you? Click to learn more." Or perhaps publishers that are reliant upon cookies to boost CPM rates through behavioral targeting and sophisticated analytics could notify users when they access a registration-required area that if it weren't for cookies, they'd have to register again and again.

Third-party targeting, optimizing and analytics firms also would do well to create consumer-aimed sites linked from publisher sites or ad disclaimers. There, they could explain the benefits of using non-personally identifiable data to serve up ads consumers might actually appreciate.

It's true -- advertisers won't appreciate detracting from their ad messages. Publishers won't want to risk exposing their profit-driven motives, either. And third parties will most certainly have an uphill battle towards more consumer acceptance. However, as long as online advertising and publishing is reliant upon users keeping their cookies, all parties stand to benefit from real transparency and direct communication - at the time and place it can really hit home.

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