Offline Targeting: The Real Punch in the Nose


nose_smallADOTAS – Which would you prefer: Some stranger threatening to punch you at a virtual trade show or at a real one? The answer is simple of course — you’d rather be threatened online where there is no chance that a punch will actually land.

This example seems silly, but it’s illustrative of the debate going on with regards to privacy in advertising in the online world. All of the latest buzz is about online targeting, but like in the example above, it’s really the offline world of targeting that should scare consumers (although perfectly legal and legitimate) — not online targeting.

With all the recent talk and continued noise about the “horrors” of online behavioral targeting, it’s surprising that these discussions haven’t also zeroed in the practices of the offline-targeting world — the real punch-in-the-nose!

Behavioral targeting, where the user is anonymously targeted with ads based on the websites they visit, has been the chief concern of government and privacy groups. Currently when users browse healthcare websites for diabetes information, banner ads for diabetes medication show up on their screens. “FOUL,” they say, “this is an invasion of privacy!”

The crux of their argument: A user shouldn’t be tracked as they move from site to site. However, there are a few problems with this argument, and it flies in the face of what’s already legal and acceptable in the marketing world:

1.) The user isn’t being tracked at all. It is actually the user’s browser, search terms and click-stream that are tracked.

Let’s examine a real-world example. When your 16-year-old daughter makes a purchase with a credit card at Bloomingdales, that credit card company can legally sell the purchase information to a third party who wants to mail advertisements that might catch your daughter’s eye.

That advertisement is targeted at your child (not just a computer screen), showing up at your home, with ad content personalized with the previous purchase information. It would be much safer and less intrusive to merely have your daughter see targeted Bloomingdales banner ads when surfing the Web than to have letters arrive at your mailbox tied to your personal address.

2.) The same credit card company can sell your household income information that you provide when signing up for a new card to third parties. Who might want to know how much you make? Scary, right?

3.) Your mortgage company can sell your mailing address and email address to companies that want to reach new homeowners. Who knows who might show up at your house?

Even in the online world, examples of these types are rampant. Google and other search engines are able to serve ads for diabetes when the user types diabetes into the search box. This seems perfectly acceptable to the casual observer, right?

However, the tradeoff is exactly the same as with targeted banner ads. The anonymity is exactly the same, as is the intent of the surfer. What difference does it make that the user is seeing an ad on the side of the Google search results versus a banner ad?

The conclusion to these paradoxes is simple: online targeting is far less of a threat to consumer privacy than offline marketing, but people simply misunderstand it. Fear, uncertainty and doubt are the leading drivers. If the government really wants to make a difference in protecting consumer privacy, they should use the following formula:

  • Go after offline advertising practices first, to quell the really invasive stuff.
  • Next, support the online targeting world with laws that codify self-regulatory principles around disclosure and anonymity of the user but don’t harm the ROI or efficiency of online campaigns
  • Finally, educate users to help them understand exactly what targeting means online, how to opt out, and that the online world of targeting is not that scary after all.

This would be the best antidote to the truly scary practices of offline marketers – by moving them all online where all consumers exist in a much safer world where punches don’t land nearly as hard as in the offline world.


  1. Russell has it nailed. (So does Facebook) Personal information privacy is a thing of the past. We give up control of our information easily in both the online and offline world. At least the online activities used for online targeting are separated from the personal identifiers on many platforms. But this is a thin line, already crossed by Facebook and others. How long until it is accepted to the extent that we accept loss of privacy offline?


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