Targeted Advertising Vs. Privacy

28/08/2012 11:49 BST | Updated 24/10/2012 10:12 BST

Targeted advertising v privacy. Not a debate, more a fait accompli.

Sky's announcement of Adserve at The Future of Advertising...In One Afternoon in London, earlier this year, marks the leap of TV advertising into the targeted ad world of the internet and store cards.

Adserve will enable the Sky box, through which around 10 million UK homes watch TV, to target advertising in a break. So an advertiser could, for example, buy one 30 second slot and show three different commercials based upon the profile of the household. The profile, and this is where we starting meeting the privacy issue, is built up by the Sky box's analysis of the programmes the household watches.

So, a slot bought by an insurance company, in the example Sky gave, might send out ads for travel, car and household insurance, depending on the information about you gleaned from your viewing habits (and possibly aggregated from information about you from other sources).

Would this be useful? It could be, in that if your viewing habits show you are interested in cars, for example, you might see more car ads and fewer for some category you had shown no interest in.

But that does not really amount to a benefit, in that whatever information you want about cars you could access quickly and accurately online. Targeted car ads won't know much about your preferences, in terms of price, model, so most of the information will be of little benefit.

Also, we will have misreadings of consumer habits, like those we see on Amazon, where searching for a present for someone who likes, say, Metallica CDs will cause you to have them recommended to you whenever you revisit the site.

So it all ends up a bit like clumsy present buying, where you are identified as liking cricket and everyone gets you cricket stuff, every birthday and Christmas.

If you are concerned about your privacy, there are much darker areas than these on the Internet and with store loyalty cards.

Facebook concerns are well rehearsed, but are worth delving into because they are among the most sinister. Facebook presents itself as a fun, counterculture type thing, in the mould of Virgin Airlines. Not evil, not big business, not like those bad bankers and avaricious companies. Except that it is.

Once signed up, the user is inveigled into liking things or doing quizzes or providing personal information, which is aggregated and used to profile them to advertisers. None of this is brought to the attention of the user and they change the interface to disguise the fact that you are entering into something and make it difficult or impossible to opt out.

To give an example, I was searching for hotels recently on Trip Advisor, and it brought up the Facebook pictures of some of my Facebook friends and told me which cities they had been to and what hotels they had reviewed and what they thought of them. All this without me being logged into Facebook.

Unaware of any link between Facebook and Trip Advisor, I investigated. Turns out Facebook bought Trip Advisor and if you have used the Cities I've Visited function to tell your friends where you have been, it automatically links you to your Trip Advisor profile. I am sure that must be in some Facebook small print but you are not told that will happen. More significantly, I had not used the Cities I've Visited function. Turns out I had got it because someone I was with in Mumbai tagged me in their Cities I've Visited to say I was with them.

Supermarket loyalty cards are another cynical grab for your personal data. In return for a small discount on shopping, they get valuable data. A recent article by Charles Duhigg in The New York Times provides a fascinating example of the level of sophistication employed.

Target, the number two retailer in the USA, are the example given but other major retailers are operating in the same way. Target collect data and employ a team of statisticians. Identifying the moments in people's lives where they are open to or seeking new types of product and thus where they develop new brand loyalties.

One such occasion is pregnancy, so Target work to ensure they find out their customers are pregnant before anyone else does (ideally they would find out before the Mother but they haven't got quite that far yet).

So as soon as a customer starts to buy vitamins associated with pregnancy, non-scented lotions and a range of other items connected with pregnancy, they are sent baby product information.

The Customer ID aggregates all information the customer provides from answering emails, store cards, coupons, surveys or customer help lines into one place to build a complete picture of them. Retailers supplement this with data they buy in, such as what issues you comment about online.

Target can calculate the probability you are pregnant and know the type of purchase stimulus you are most likely to respond to.

So Target have the information to bombard women who are probably pregnant with brochures for baby products. Isn't that a bit creepy? Will learning that your supermarket knows you are pregnant when you haven't told them make customers react negatively? Target have thought about that too and send coupons for baby items along with coupons for items the consumer usually buys, such as cleaning products, to make the arrival of the baby item coupons appear random.

Being sent stuff we want or may use, such as coupons to save money on products we are planning to buy anyway, is useful. But the idea of a supermarket (or any retailer or business) holding all this information on you and manipulating you through it is very unattractive.

In general, consumers seem to regard the right to privacy as being of more importance than the benefits of receiving advertising that relates to them and may save them money.

For example, a survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project (a think tank on "the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world.") found as follows: seventy-three percent said they would not be okay with a search engine keeping track of their searches and using that information to personalize future search results because they see it as an invasion of privacy. Twenty-three percent were okay with the practice.

Collusion, a Firefox add on (very simple to install), shows you which marketing and advertising companies are tracking you on line. If, for example, you go to the Guardian newspaper's website after you have installed Collusion, it shows you that the Guardian website provides information about you to:,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,, flashtalking and

And the Guardian is another company one might imagine asking you if it is ok for them to do this or even telling you they are doing it.

I should cover the Huffington Post to while we are here, they share your data with,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,

This shows how we have gone far beyond Google knowing about you through your searches. Your searches and websites you visit, your loyalty card use, the issues you comment on online and other data are being aggregated toward the new holy grail for advertisers, to "Aggregate multiple and diverse online and offline data sources for shoppers" According to Audience Science, one of the companies helping brands do this.

In other words, a central database that knows everything about you from what you buy to your hobbies and the illnesses you probably have, like the Target Customer ID.

Of course you can opt out of some of this data collection, such as loyalty cards, but Google and the internet are now part of our everyday lives and opting out of them is impossible. Besides, preventing companies from sharing data is difficult in that those that permit you to do so usually make it hard for the user to do so, or even impossible, in the case of Facebook and Google.

"If you're not paying for something, you're not the customer; you're the product being sold," - a quote about the internet and marketing from Andrew Lewis. Worse, now we are the customer (we are spending the money) and the product too.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that surrendering our privacy is too high a price to pay for the potential benefits of receiving more relevant marketing and saving some cash.