Behavioural advertising – Always Be Creeping

There’s a new business logic which permeates most of today’s online commerce. The ABC is no longer Always Be Closing, it’s Always Be Creeping.

But even as behavioural advertising evolves and targeting becomes more sophisticated, sometimes companies may wish to be subtler when offering targeted ads to consumers. In a much-cited New York Times article from 2012, a former employee of Target said that

[W]e started mixing in all these ads for things we knew pregnant women would never buy, so the baby ads looked random. We’d put an ad for a lawn mower next to diapers. We’d put a coupon for wineglasses next to infant clothes. That way, it looked like all the products were chosen by chance. And we found out that as long as a pregnant woman thinks she hasn’t been spied on, she’ll use the coupons. She just assumes that everyone else on her block got the same mailer for diapers and cribs. As long as we don’t spook her, it works. 

Tene and Polonetsky (2013) argue that it’s not the data collection itself which is creepy, but how statistical analysis is used to come to certain conclusions about you.

This is especially the case when “offline” purchases are combined with information on online behaviour, a practice referred to as “onboarding”. We have grown accustomed to personalised ads based on web browsing or Facebook likes, but today’s marketers want a complete picture of our everyday transactions as well.

Whether or not one sees this as invasive is up to each and everyone to decide, but one can bear in mind that one of the industry’s lead data brokers, Acxiom, has “information [on] about 700 million consumers worldwide with over 3000 data segments for nearly every U.S. consumer (FTC report, 2014).” Combined, the biggest data brokers have billions and billions of records on people and businesses.

In their defence, the Digital Advertising Alliance does offer consumers a choice to opt out of data tracking. If consumers know that such an option exists is another question entirely, and the registry only covers companies which have agreed to participate. In the end, such self-regulatory measures directed towards consumers are ineffective, as the most privacy-conscious are likely to use other means to conceal their actions online whereas the vast majority of people are unaware that such options exist.

 References

Federal Trade Commission, 2014: DATA BROKERS: A Call for Transparency and Accountability. 

Tene, Omer and Polonetsky, Jules, 2013: A Theory of Creepy: Technology, Privacy and Shifting Social Norms [September 16, 2013]. Yale Journal of Law & Technology, 2013. Available at SSRN:http://ssrn.com/abstract=2326830.

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