The debate over behavioral targeting continues. The latest: an article in AdAge speaks to a survey conducted by Gallup that lumply suggests most Americans don’t want to be tracked by advertisers online.  My reaction to this wasn’t begrudging acceptance, but rather frustration. That the overarching response from the public is focused on privacy tells to me that the ad community has done a crappy job of 1) fine-tuning the practice and 2) communicating it to the public. Because I don’t believe that a 20-year old single woman actually prefers to receive ads for men’s razors over her favorite vodka or shoe brand.

In fact, I was certain the study was flawed. Until I got to the interesting part: “When the Gallup survey respondents are broken down by age and income, those who were younger and more affluent were more likely to agree to being tracked.” What this tells me is that the people who are closest to this technology have a greater appreciation for it because they require less education about how it works or how it improves their browsing experience. But this isn’t the majority. And waiting for everyone to catch up isn’t the answer.

More than that, the experience isn’t quite right. Even though I appreciate behavioral targeting’s purpose, it’s not always comfortable. I’ve been ad stalked plenty of times. Visit a site once and suddenly everywhere I go, there it is. It’s creepy. And that’s exactly why the majority of people perk up about privacy when it comes to this topic. Exactly how do advertisers get this information? How do they follow me? Where is MY data kept and for how long!?

This is where the industry failed. And where they need to strongly step up and represent. Because even I will tire of that shoe company that follows me everywhere I go. The sophistication has to get better, so that it feels right to consumers. It must not feel like ad-stalking, but rather a sense that the advertising is aligned with an individual’s interests.

Behavioral targeting is a significant part of the evolution of our online experiences. It’s what will make advertising a relevant part of this experience, rather than a barrier to it.  And the issue is serious: the FTC has gone so far as to suggest the implementation of a “Do Not Track” mechanism similar to the “Do Not Call List.” This blocks consumers from the experience for good. That’s crazy. This isn’t junk mail or telemarketing; this is a sharper focus on a person’s interests. It’s meant to BETTER our experience with advertising!

So the ad community needs to react quickly: self regulate, advance the practice and educate the public. Some of this is already happening, with things like About Ads, an industry self-regulatory program that allows people to opt-out. But if the industry takes this issue seriously, this will be the mere beginning of an attempt to evolve both the practice and the understanding of behavioral targeting.


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