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FEATURE14 April 2011

Setting the ground rules


Building trust between advertisers and consumers is a lofty goal – and one that might never be fully attainable. But efforts to establish some ground rules with consumers about what constitutes acceptable practice will improve the relationship. It may also silence the more extreme voices in the online privacy debate.

It’s not clear that the relationship between advertisers and consumers has ever been anything but uneasy – the latter wary and sceptical as the former says whatever they can within the bounds of truth and the law to encourage a sale. The relationship, though, is clearly not getting any better.

Concerns over online tracking and targeting and the implications for personal privacy have caught the attention of regulators, but their actions are being informed largely by an extremist point of view: those consumer groups utterly opposed to advertisers collecting any information whatsoever without a person’s say so.

“This is an attempt to reach out to people and listen to what they have to say about brands and communications, to ask them what they like and don’t like about online marketing, and to help the industry align practices with societal expectations”

Wider consumer opinion on this topic is of course more nuanced, at least according to some qualitative research commissioned by the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) and conducted by Firefly Millward Brown. Focus groups conducted in Brazil, China, the UK and the US found that, generally speaking, consumers understand the advertising trade-off – that they get something for free because advertising has paid for it.

Focus group participants were also “broadly positively disposed to tracking if it makes ads more relevant”, though there are concerns about data storage and how long personal data is kept before being disposed of.

The aim of this research, according to the WFA’s director of communications Will Gilroy, is to define a global consensus about what is and is not acceptable in online marketing.

“This is an attempt to reach out to people and listen to what they have to say about brands and communications, to ask them what they like and don’t like about online marketing, and to help the industry align practices with societal expectations,” said Gilroy, speaking to Research from the launch of the research in Beijing. “Companies talk to and listen to their consumers, but as an industry are we doing this? Probably not enough.”

The research focused in particular on parents of children aged 12-18 – with children aged 15-17 interviewed separately – as much of the ethical concerns around marketing involve how and to what extent children are exposed to commercial messages.

But in many ways the children showed themselves to be more ad-savvy than the parents. They were more comfortable than adults in feeling that they had control over what ad content they were exposed to, with teens claiming to be “banner-blind” – their minds tuned to pay little attention to content in the margins of a site. They were also more open to the concept of online tracking, though they shared their parents’ worries over what data is held and for how long.

If this research is to be accepted, it appears that self-regulatory initiatives to address online advertising concerns are on the right lines. Today the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) Europe joined counterparts in the UK and the US in introducing a framework to govern online behavioural advertising, stressing education, consumer control and limitations on what data is collected and the length of time it is retained.

“Online advertising techniques require the trust of consumers,” says IAB Europe president Alain Heureux. Building that trust is a cornerstone of the WFA’s Project Reconnect, of which this research is just the first stage.

It would be foolish to think that consumers will ever fully trust advertisers – indeed, scepticism is healthy. But clearly establishing the ground rules and abiding by them would be a positive first step in improving the relationship.

Opening a direct channel of dialogue with consumers should also help moderate the debate about online privacy. Privacy groups are pushing for legislation, believing that advertising self-regulation does not go far enough in protecting consumers or their interests. But that argument falls down if the industry can show it is working with consumers to find an acceptable middle ground.