October 20 2011

Targeted Online Advertising: Creepy and Wonderful

Libby Jacobson

Internet privacy is a topic that reporters, particularly in the techosphere, never grow tired of. Anytime Facebook tweaks its privacy settings, tech pundits predict massive user revolts that almost always fail to materialize. Recently, it was revealed that Facebook may be tracking users' browsing habits even when they’re logged out of facebook.com. Companies indeed have a responsibility to be transparent about their tracking and data sharing habits, but “online tracking” can be such an overhyped  phrase that lawmakers will jump at the chance to attach their name to any bill with the phrase “Do Not Track” in the title.

While there are valid concerns involving the difficulties of data anonymization and the warrantless accessing of personal data by law enforcement, from a consumer viewpoint, behavioral advertising - when advertisers try to match an ad to your web browsing habits - can have tangible benefits. There’s the obvious and immediate benefit of not having to pay for an email or Facebook account because these platforms are ad-supported, but beyond that, targeted ads also mean we don’t have to see obnoxious or even offensive advertisements. Let me explain.

For example, say I buy a lot of clothes from Express.com. My web browser then keeps track of how often I peruse the fall collections at the Express website. Later, when I’m skimming one of my favorite humor blogs that site has an audience that skews male, rather than seeing ads for “Hot single women in your area” or links for other male-centric websites like AskMen (where I can learn how to tell if my boyfriend thinks I’m too fat), I’ll instead see ads for clothing from a shop I frequently buy from. Some might say this is predatory advertising that will cause me to subconsciously continue shopping for things I don’t need and cultivate a consumerist attitude, but that view clearly infantilizes adults and should be identified for what it is – anti-consumer alarmism.

The advantage of targeted online advertising when compared to mass-media television advertising is even more pronounced. If I tune into Comedy Central or Spike TV – 34% and 38% female viewership, respectively – every show is punctuated with two and a half minutes worth of ads for Miller Lite, Axe body spray, or one of this god-awful Twix commercial. Such of these ads often treat women as either objects or obstacles, as well as portray men as one-dimensional, dumb-as-a-rock Joe Blows. Even “ironic sexism” in commercials  is still obnoxious enough to put some of us off (and yes, “women’s” ads can be just as bad). However, when I go over to SouthParkStudios.com (40% female audience), my internet browsing data tells the ad server not to play any of those ads, instead showing me things that are relevant to my browser history.  

My theory is that a lot of the mild, covert, yet ubiquitous sexism that still pervades our culture today is partially the fault of mass media and advertising. Programmers, looking to sell advertising time, have to grab as large of a viewership as possible. Hence, the buckets that people get sorted into are narrow (gender, age, income, etc) and both advertisers and show writers don’t veer too far outside of a very narrow set of expectations  - men watch sports, women watch bad made-for-TV-dramas, older people watch cable news, etc. The promise of the Internet’s long tail, along with the computing power to mine large batches of consumer data, means not only will be able to avoid annoying and sexist advertising – so will anybody else who’s interests don’t align with the advertiser’s narrow view of [Male: 18-49].

For the web users who just can't embrace behavioral advertising, there are plenty of easy-to-use tools available that block browser cookies, and hundreds of blogs dedicated to researching the latest privacy concerns. It's time for the rest of us to stop having an uninformed cow over the imagined dangers of a more effective advertising space.

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