Friday, October 09, 2009

Survey Looks for Hostility to Behavioral Targeting, and Finds It

Summary: a new survey found that most Americans oppose behavior-based Web targeting. The authors clearly had an agenda, but the industry still needs to present its side of the story.

A recent survey conducted by professors by UC/Berkeley and University of Pennsylvania concluded (to quote its full title) that “Contrary to what marketers say, Americans Reject Tailored Advertising and Three Activities That Enable It.” Is it just me, or do I detect a bit of hostility?

The headlined finding of the survey was that 66% of respondents said they did not want Web sites to show ads tailored to their interests. As eMarketer pointed out in its article on the study, this conflicts with other surveys have found consumers receptive to targeted Web ads.

The Berkeley/UPenn study claims it is more accurate because it is the first nationally representative telephone (rather than Internet-based) survey on the topic. I doubt that really had much impact on the results. As a detailed critique by the business-friendly Progress & Freedom Foundation points out, the answers were more likely influenced by the structure of the poll itself, which asked a variety of somewhat tendentious questions leading up to the final answers.

My own critique is that the questions all asked whether people wanted to see tailored ads, not whether they preferred tailored ads vs. non-tailored ads. People may have interpreted the unstated alternative as no advertising at all. In that case, their rejection had less to do with tailoring in particular than with the near-universal dislike of advertising in general.

Still, the answers I found most interesting have received relatively little attention. This was a set of three questions that found:

- 67% of Internet users agree they have “lost all control over how personal information is collected and used by companies”, but

- 58% feel “most businesses handle the personal information they collect about consumers in a proper and confidential way” and

- 54% agree that “existing laws and organizational practices provide a reasonable level of protection for consumer privacy today”.

In other words, people have finally accepted Scott McNealy’s famous advice from 1999: “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it”.

I’d like to end the story there, if only for artistic reasons. But the survey also asked several questions about consumers’ understanding of current privacy laws, which basically found that most people think they have more protection than they really do. Another series of questions found support for laws giving consumers rights to insist that companies delete their information.

I don’t take the results too seriously because the questions didn’t indicate these would be new laws or balance the laws against reduced free content or the cost of more regulation. But they do suggest that people might support stronger regulation if they understood how poorly they are now protected. So there continues to be a real need for marketers to both do a good job of protecting consumer privacy and of educating the public and legislators about the benefits provided by easy access to consumer information.

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