Could behavioral-ad labeling mislead consumers?

January 7, 2010

In prior posts I have focused on shortcomings in proposals to place consumer targeting disclosure directly in advertisements using icons and labels. While the idea has intuitive appeal, I don’t believe consumers should be expected to manage their privacy choices on an ad-by-ad or network-by-network basis, and I’m concerned that marketing techniques like retargeting, where data may be collected outside of any particular ad, will be missed.

Even more important is the problem of limited participation: there are hundreds of targeting companies but only a subset submit to industry standards and oversight, and those adherent networks are outnumbered on top websites. Unless the FTC were specifically to require OBA labeling by all networks, you can assume that only a minority of targeting companies will do so.

This participation problem means that an in-ad disclosure framework, standing alone, could actually be misleading for consumers. The more consumers come to understand what the labels mean and learn to watch for them, the more an absence of an label creates a potentially false assurance that an ad hasn’t been targeted on behavior.

It’s ironic: the more that certified networks train you to focus in on their own behavioral targeting, the more they are training you to ignore what their less scrupulous competitors are doing.

This is why, as a baseline, OBA disclosure needs to operate at the webpage or website level. Each webpage having targeted ads needs to link to a list of relevant networks, opt-out choices, and maybe even policy information, whether or not some OBA ads carry special labels. The cross-industry principles put this forward as an alternative, when in fact it should be a requirement.

It’s true that this approach will never get complete participation from websites, either. But if the members of the NAI were truly to require complete OBA disclosure throughout their network websites, and make it easy for websites to do, publishers will finally have to consider the practices of the ad networks they enable. It will take far less than complete participation by top websites to isolate non-adherent networks. And publishers who fail to take simple steps to enhance disclosure will far more accountable to their users than ad networks ever will be.


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