Ads with Eyes: The Targeted Marketing Debate

18 April 2012

This post was originally published to MatrixMediaFX on August 13, 2010.

Marketers are spying on Internet users – or so the Wall Street Journal would have you believe. The recently launched “What They Know” series is dedicated to uncovering the truth about Internet-tracking technology and its implications for the privacy of all Internet users, which is currently estimated to be between 15 and 22 percent of the global population. But in an age where social media has officially overtaken pornography as the #1 activity on the web, is it really any surprise that online marketers are seeking new ways to make advertising more social – and as such, more personal?

In theory, targeted advertising should be a win-win situation for both the marketer and the consumer. Instead of experiencing a barrage of promotions for irrelevant products, the consumer’s exposure to advertising is tailored to his or her specific needs and interests. Likewise, a company’s investment in advertising is better utilized because promotions for products are guaranteed to reach a collective of the right consumers.

The complicating factor is, as always, privacy. How much access is too much access to your personal data?

Facebook, it would seem, is the poster child for privacy breaches. In 2007 the social networking site came under fire after it was revealed that its Beacon ad system was tracking users’ off-Facebook activities, with or without their consent. More recently, the introduction of  the “Like” button on third party siteswas cause for concern because it allows Facebook to assemble a vast amount of data about Internet users’ browsing habits.

Apple is now facing its own privacy controversy, having taken the data collection issue offline and into the very real world location tracking. Apple’s privacy policy states that Apple and its partners and licensees “may collect, use, and share precise location data, including the real-time geographic location” of any Apple computer or device. This tracking is part of Apple’s new iAd advertising program, which delivers highly targeted mobile ads to Apple product users. While opting out of the iAd program is possible, it won’t decrease the number of mobile ads those users see – but it will decrease the relevancy of the advertising to that user’s personal interests.

The conundrum is clear: highly targeted, personalized advertising is attractive, but the trade-off appears to be your privacy on a silver platter. It’s a leap most consumers aren’t willing to make – yet.

In a TED Talk delivered in December of 2007, Kevin Kelly, the co-founder of Wired magazine, made a number of predictions about the subsequent 5,000 days in the development of the Internet, the next 13 years – or the period of time we as a wired society now inhabit. Looking specifically at the increasingly targeted nature of online and mobile advertising, it’s difficult not to make links between some of Kelly’s predictions and advertising models like Apple’s iAd. Kelly predicted that the Internet will become increasingly tied to things in reality, to the point that every person will be recognizable online based on their unique data. Tracking your clicks online and your location in the real world were steps in that direction, but let’s not forget about the recent introduction of facial tracking and recognition technology to serve targeted ads in Japan. Now it’s possible to tailor advertising based on a consumer’s appearance, not just their search history – but what kind of threat does this pose to privacy?

Well, if the Internet turns out the way Kelly thinks it will, privacy will be a moot issue. Kelly thinks total personalization in the new world will require total transparency. Why remember your phone number when you can Google it? Of course, the prospect of putting everything about yourself online is a daunting one, but Kelly thinks that if we want a smarter, more personalized, more ubiquitous web, we have to be open to having our data shared.

It would appear that online and mobile marketers are already on board, but what about their consumers? Only time will tell.

The future [of advertising] is friendly, and it’s waiting to meet you.

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