Targeted and Transparent Is Right Combo for Online Ads


The primary pitch of companies that target online advertisements to consumers based on their Internet activities is telling us how much more we'll appreciate -- even enjoy -- ads if they are relevant.


I think this oversells the idea. In a post from January, I likened targeted advertising to anesthesia during non-elective surgery. Sure, it makes the process less painful, but don't patronize me by trying to make it sound enjoyable.


In another similarity to anesthesia, this kind of advertising makes us nervous because it's invasive. It takes control away from us and gives it to some shadowy entity. So it's nice to see a suggestion, included in a new report from eMarketer, that advertisers should be more forthcoming about targeting and offer consumers a chance to opt in. A News.com blog post contains this snippet from a news release about the report:

One way to ensure that consumers welcome rather than reject behaviorally targeted ads is to ask them to give their consent to receive them. Tell them about the real benefits of saying yes, including more-relevant advertising.

There have been a number of recent missteps by companies not following this advice. After two members of the House of Representatives raised concerns, ISP Charter Communications halted its plans to use technology from a company called NebuAd that would have collected Web surfing information from Charter subscribers with the aim of creating targeted ads.


The Center for Democracy and Technology plans to present information to the Senate Commerce Committee that it says suggests that NebuAd may violate federal wiretapping laws because its service intercepts communications, reports MediaPost. The group leaves little doubt about its feelings with the unambiguous title of its recent report: "NebuAd and Partner ISPs: Wiretapping, Forgery and Browser Hijacking."


Still, despite these kinds of concerns and a thus-fartepid response from advertisers, eMarketer projects that behaviorally targeted ad spending will reach $4.4 billion by the end of 2012, up from $775 million this year. Google is reportedly testing new ways of employing search data to serve users more targeted ads, though details are so sketchy that observers like New York Times blogger Saul Hansell aren't sure whether folks should be concerned.


At the very least, I think companies need to heed eMarketer's advice and tell consumers more about what they are doing. And giving folks the power of opt-in makes the whole thing seem a lot less sneaky. Despite reports with scary titles, like the one from the Center for Democracy and Technology mentioned above, boosting opt-in rates will likely be as simple as offering a discount on monthly Internet access fees.