Don't Fight Privacy -- Embrace It

With new privacy legislation aimed at online targeted advertising about to be introduced in Florida and pending in Oklahoma, Washington, New York and New Jersey, the trade associations that represent the interests of online ad companies are fighting back with the usual stupid arguments.

The Florida bill, SB 1734, would broadly allow consumers to avoid targeted ads (defined as those based on people's predicted interests, by data gathered from people's activities over time and across businesses, websites or other online applications.) The proposed legislation would require companies to notify consumers about data collection, and allow them to opt out of the sale of their personal data, as well as its processing for purposes of targeted ads.

The law says that personal information encompasses the type of pseudonymous data relied on by ad-tech companies, including information that “identifies, relates to, describes, is reasonably capable of being associated with, or could reasonably be linked, directly [or] indirectly, with a particular consumer or household.”

The measure, as currently drafted, would allow consumers to sue for up to $750 in damages per violation, and empowers state authorities to seek fines ranging from $2,500 to $7,500 per violation.

“Allowing private actions would flood Florida’s courts with frivolous lawsuits driven by opportunistic trial lawyers searching for technical violations, rather than focusing on actual consumer harm,” said the Association of National Advertisers, American Association of Advertising Agencies, Interactive Advertising Bureau, Network Advertising Initiative and American Advertising Federation in letters to leaders of Florida's Senate.

“We believe SB 1734 would impose new and particularly onerous requirements on entities doing business in the state, and would unnecessarily impede Florida residents from receiving helpful services and accessing useful information online,” the groups write.

Some consumers like me, really kinda like targeted ads because once I am in-market, I like to see lots of different alternatives, especially pricing differentials. It is similar to search results that are often spot-on with products I wouldn’t have otherwise found.

But I have worked with enough ad-targeting companies to know that despite their best efforts, the anonymized data they collect on individuals is often incredibly inaccurate. For example, my looking up a city to settle a dinner bet, does not necessarily mean I ever want to go there -- or be pitched it as a tourist destination for the next month.

I have often though the right way to make targeted advertising work in everyone’s best interest is to have a place where consumers can declare what they are in market for this week and then gets loads of appropriate ads. You know, kinda like search, but with a goal of limiting the ads you see to products you actually want.

The ad industry has abused users for decades now by serving crappy, invasive ad units broadly targeted to anyone still drawing breath for products that frankly piss them off -- like diet plans and cheap loans, impotence drugs and bargain insurance. Moreover, many folks find retargeted ads that bug them to rethink a purchase they didn’t make creepy and, at times, way too personal.

I appreciate that a marketer’s mission is to get beyond proven buyers to corral prospects and turn them into customers -- but users often react with disdain at seeing products totally not of interest to them (or anyone else who might be their age, gender, income and location.)

The industry likes to pretend they are not trying to convert buyers, but rather are providing helpful information that might at least spark some consideration. But we hide behind incomprehensible privacy policies (that only make users suspect) and talk more about how lawmakers will “hurt” marketers instead of changes that would reassure the public.

For people who are supposed to be experts at persuasion, we continue to be astoundingly tone-deaf.

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