Targeted Ads: Finding a Balance Between Cool and Creepy

Ann All

Though Google has long been known as the company most likely to violate your privacy, that dubious "honor" may soon go to rival Microsoft.


Some of Microsoft's latest moves have a distinct "Big Brother" feel. There's its application for a patent on a system that would allow managers to monitor workers' physiological states through their computers (ostensibly to offer help to folks when they become frustrated). And then there's the partnership with MediaCart Holdings that promises to serve up advertisements geared to the position of a shopper's grocery cart in the store.


Plus, there's plenty more to make the paranoid among us nervous in a blog post by Seattle Post-Intelligencer writer Todd Bishop. The post contains links to 22 of Microsoft's recent patent applications.


Bishop has helpfully highlighted one of the creepiest, for Targeted Advertising in Brick-and-Mortar Establishments. Here's how it would work: Sensors gather information about customers as they move through a store. Then the info is analyzed, a customer profile is generated, and targeted advertisements are presented to the customer as he strolls throughout the store.


This may be the same technology that will be used in the MediaCart partnership. If so, the companies have tried to make it sound a lot less invasive. Neither Microsoft nor advertisers will be able to access personal information provided by consumers who enroll in programs involving the carts, they say. Fair enough, but I assume they will freely access the data generated by those ubiquitous sensors.


It's about "making the shopping experience better for the consumer," says Scott Ferris, GM of Microsoft's Advertiser and Publisher Solutions group. But will it? Much of the argument hinges on whether consumers will prefer targeted ads over more generic promotions.


I guess they will, though I don't buy the statements put forth by Microsoft and others that folks will actually appreciate these kinds of ads. To me, it's like having an appendectomy. There's no way of avoiding it, but anesthesia makes it less painful. Just don't patronize me by trying to make it sound enjoyable.


Still, I am often surprised by consumers' apparent willingness to relinquish personal data if they think it will get them something desirable. Microsoft -- no coincidence -- was able to get lots of folks to allow it to install software on their computers to gather unspecified usage information by giving them free copies of Vista Ultimate and Office 2007. But come on, how many people will find targeted ads to be as big of a payoff as free Office and Vista?


Sure, retail loyalty programs would have more value if companies would do a better job at collecting, analyzing and managing their data.


My son is 7, and I still get coupons for diapers and other baby supplies. I assume it's because my grocer is using outdated data. (Either that, or its system is so sophisticated it realizes that many of my demographically similar sisters have other kids by now. Nah, I'm going with the former explanation.) I wish my grocer would tweak its underlying business processes to offer me more relevant ads -- but not so relevant that it creeps me out.


The Beacon brouhaha (an apparent misstep by Facebook and part owner Microsoft), demonstrated that a growing number of people would like a little more digital privacy. Many of them are even Facebook users, for Pete's sake, folks that don't normally blanch at getting "friend" invites from people they don't even know.

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