Corporate Eye

Digital Advertising and Behavioral Targeting Get the Thumbs Down from Consumers

spywareTracking online activities isn’t new, but only in recent years has it become the “must-try” marketing strategy.  With Google leading the way, more and more consumers are catching onto exactly what behavioral tracking and ad targeting online means, and they don’t like it.

In a new study of 1,000 U.S. adult Web users conducted by the University of California and the University of Pennsylvania, 66% said they do not want to be shown ads based on their interests as determined by their online activities.  However, that was before they fully understood how advertisers collected the data used to deliver targeted ads.  Once the survey respondents understood how the process of tracking online behavior is conducted and then used to determine which ads to display, respondents felt a bit differently about the practice.  The number of people who said they do not want to be shown ads based on their interests jumped to between 73% and 80% once they understood the process used to deliver those ads.

Privacy groups in the U.S. are fighting for more stringent laws related to online behavioral tracking, but the Internet advertising industry is fighting just as hard from the other side of the debate trying to keep the doors open to online behavioral tracking and ad serving.

Certainly, if the full extent of how this information is collected and used were made clear to the masses, the protest would be loud and clear from consumers.  But online behavioral tracking provides what could potentially be a gold mine of information to marketers.  Of course, it could be argued that with multiple people using the same computers, the data isn’t necessarily as helpful as one would want.  Furthermore, the reasons why a person is conducting specific activities online might not accurately reflect their normal behavior.  For example, I don’t want to know what kind of information was tracked about me when I was doing research for my book about the Playboy brand.  I can assure any advertisers that collected information about my online activities during that time period who consider using that data to serve ads to me will be very disappointed in my response rate.

Bottom line, there are arguments from both sides about online behavioral tracking and ad targeting.  From the consumer side, it violates privacy, and from the marketing side, the information isn’t something one should bet the farm on.  In other words, it’s valuable information, but don’t put all your chips on it.  Not to mention the fact that it borders on that gray area of business ethics that makes one stop and wonder exactly what we’re doing as marketers anyway.  Where do we draw the line?

Your thoughts?

Image: Flickr

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Susan Gunelius is the author of 10 marketing, social media, branding, copywriting, and technology books, and she is President & CEO of KeySplash Creative, Inc., a marketing communications company. She also owns Women on Business, an award-wining blog for business women. She is a featured columnist for and, and her marketing-related articles have appeared on websites such as,,, and more. She has over 20 years of experience in the marketing field having spent the first decade of her career directing marketing programs for some of the largest companies in the world, including divisions of AT&T and HSBC. Today, her clients include large and small companies around the world and household brands like Citigroup, Cox Communications, Intuit, and more. Susan is frequently interviewed about marketing and branding by television, radio, print, and online media organizations, and she speaks about these topics at events around the world. You can connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or Google+.