Digital Ad Industry Isn’t the Bad Guy


jail_smallADOTAS – In the interest of providing consumers a higher level of confidence in the online advertising industry, the Self-Regulatory Principles for Online Behavioral Advertising aim to provide web consumers a mechanism for opting out of behavioral tracking services. In what might seem like a counter-intuitive move, many third-party data providers and publishers have gotten on board.

Why? Not only is it simply the right thing to do but most also believe transparency is good for all parties involved. Giving consumers the right to opt out of or customize behavioral targeting attributes enables them to have greater control over which ads—if any—they most want to see.

However, it’s also up to us as an industry to educate the consumer to the fact that Do-Not-Track privacy may come at a price. Web users today enjoy virtually unfettered access to a staggering amount of high-quality, “free” content—content that is paid for by advertisers. When we go online to check the weather, get the news, find a recipe or check out the latest celebrity gossip, all of this great content is provided courtesy of the advertisers who support the site, pay the writers’ salaries and ensure the infrastructure remains in place to deliver this “free” information.

By opting out, consumers would essentially be pulling the rug from under the free content that we’ve all come to enjoy and even depend on. And, although it’s unlikely, should consumers opt out en mass, the situation would force content providers to move to a subscription-based model in order to stay in business.

This would leave consumers asking themselves, “Would I be willing to pay for this content?” In most cases it seems unlikely, given the fact we’ve been spoiled for so long with free access, courtesy of advertisers.

It’s ironic that in a time when so many web users routinely and willingly share too much information over the likes of Facebook and Twitter—intimate details of their lives put on display for virtually anyone to see—maintaining online privacy still remains such an overwhelming concern. A large part of this stems from the fact that consumers are mostly unaware of exactly the kind of information behavioral targeting gathers about them.

As we in the industry well know, personally identifiable information (PII) is never, ever shared with ad servers. Only anonymous cues to user preferences and interests based on their online behavior are collected. We must help consumers understand that we are not the bad guys trying to sniff out incriminating or PII details.

The truth is that behavioral targeting has been a part of our culture for as long as most of us can remember. It’s been done with direct mail marketing for years as advertisers have attempted to drill down to specific demographics that they hope will point to predictable consumer behavior and target these potential audiences with carefully crafted messages. The same is true of online targeting, only with this media, the opportunity is much greater to more carefully and strategically deliver messages only to those audiences who have actively expressed interest in receiving them through their behaviors.

While this behavioral information is valuable to advertisers, it’s also beneficial to consumers. This kind of targeting ensures they receive only the most relevant ads and offers that cater to their interest from advertisers who actively support the free content sources web users enjoy. It’s a win-win, in much the same way that Neilsen and Arbitron tracking have ensured the continuation of free TV and radio broadcasts.

Certainly it behooves us as an industry to collectively support and acquiesce to consumers’ stated desire for privacy and opt-out choices. But it’s also our responsibility to educate them about the sacrifices they may be making by going completely track-free. So-called “free” web content must be paid for somehow, and ultimately the consumer may be forced to choose how—either by sharing anonymous and relatively innocuous information about their online behaviors or by reaching into their wallets and pulling out a credit card.


  1. UHMm? …..”it’s also our responsibility to educate them about the sacrifices they may be making by going completely track-free.”

    Is the ‘industry’ simply saying that if you don’t allow tracking you will need to then, ‘pay for content’, that has been free – up until now?

    And that a Do-Not-Track (privacy enactment), WILL come at a price? – It very much appears so. And that this is the only ‘option’ that users need to consider?

    It kind of makes all that Facebook “data” (freely given), so precious, doesn’t it.

    There may well be an alternative that could become acceptable to all concerned, though. One (I feel) that’s well worth considering or,(at the very least), discussing.

  2. Great points, Lori! The growing awareness of, and opportunities for, consumers to opt out of behavioral tracking services definitely presents a signal to the industry that there is a greater need to educate consumers on exactly how their data is used, and the actual benefits of “opting in.” In a way, this presents an opportunity for advertisers to show value by offering consumers only the most relevant and targeted ads- to essentially eliminate the unnecessary, and often annoying, clutter. This shift has bigger implications too. I think the industry overall will be encouraged to look at segmentation in a totally new way—and new innovations in technology will play an even larger role in helping advertisers re-define their approach to audience targeting.


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