NEWS7 October 2009

Tailored advertising and online tracking: Americans ‘don't want them’

North America Privacy Technology

US— A new academic study says advertisers are misguided to think they can win public support for online tracking and behavioural targeting with the promise that marketing and editorial content can be tailored to their interests.

Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Pennsylvania say two-thirds of Americans do not want websites to tailor ads, while 57% would reject tailored editorial content – and that’s before being being told about the tracking processes that need to occur to enable content to be customised.

When asked whether they would be happy to accept tailored advertising or news content if it was was based on their activity on the website they were visiting, their activities across sites or their offline behaviour, the percentage of people rejecting such content was in the range of 71–86%.

Site-specific tracking registered the lowest levels of opposition, while there was more animosity towards multi-site and off-line tracking, with off-line tracking the least desirable practice.

Even when told tracking would remain anonymous, the researchers said 68% of Americans would “definitely” not allow it while 19% would “probably” not allow it.

“It is hard to escape the conclusion that our survey is tapping into a deep concern by Americans that marketers’ tailoring of ads for them and various forms of tracking that informs those personalisations are wrong,” says their report.

“Exactly why they reject behavioural targeting is hard to determine… [but] whatever the reasons, our findings suggest that if Americans could vote on behavioural targeting today, they would shut it down.”

Marketers already know most consumers are uncomfortable with their browsing history being tracked, although twosurveys conducted a year apart by TNS on behalf of privacy group Truste found a slight improvement in attitudes towards behavioural targeting.

Consumer groups have lobbied hard to restrict online data collection, but the online advertising industry has long held to the belief that web users can be convinced of the benefits of behavioural targeting when put in the context of personalised content.

As Interactive Advertising Bureau chief Randall Rothenberg said last year: “We know from study after study that the reason people love interactive media is the ability to get relevant content, including relevant advertising content. That sits at the opposite end of the spectrum from spam. So when you give people the choice between irrelevant spam and relevant advertising they almost universally say we want relevant advertising.”

But this belief in the primacy of relevant content to consumers misses a key point, says the Berkeley and Pennsylvania study. Although the researchers found a majority of survey participants were against marketers and media firms tailoring ads and editorial on their behalf, they noted that this “does not mean Americans reject the idea of customising ads, discounts and news themselves”.

One positive the ad industry can take from this latest research is in the finding that “Americans want openness with marketers”. Echoing the findings of other academic research published this summer, the study authors say: “If marketers want to continue to use various forms of behavioural targeting in their interactions with Americans, they must work with policymakers to open up the process so that individuals can learn exactly how their information is being collected and used, and then exercise control over their data.”