Ads with eyes

BY KRISTEN STEAGALL

Published January 27, 2009

Online advertising has taken an Orwellian turn as of late. Termed behavioral advertising, it tracks our every move on the Web. It’s the technology that allows Gmail to show you ads that coincide with the content of your Inbox and the reason why advertisers take so much interest in your Facebook interests. The Big Brother-esque ads change according to e-mails you send, items you search for and information you put on your Facebook profile page.

In a media climate that is quickly becoming more based online than on TV or in print, advertisers are struggling to regain the security of investing in a TV commercial. It used to be that a company could purchase an ad spot during a certain hour on a specific channel and they would know what demographic and how many viewers its ad was reaching. Prime-time advertising on the WB, for example, was sure to reach the tweens-to-teens age group.

Advertising online is a whole new game, but while ad sellers and buyers are trying to figure out the rules, the technology holds the potential to reach consumers in a way the TV commercial never could. The key to advertising is to promote the product to its exact target audience, and online advancements make that easier to accomplish than ever. Searching for “golf courses” on Yahoo’s search engine, the results feature a sidebar of “sponsor results” with links to golf club websites. Other times, the consumer profiling is less direct but just as obvious. If I type an e-mail to my friends in Gmail about the Matthei Botanical Gardens, a link to a website selling health food products pops up.
Inherently, there is controversy surrounding this type of advertising, and not just from those targeted by it.

First, there is much speculation over whether or not this type of seemingly advanced form of advertising is even effective. If the ad is placed in a social network like MySpace or Facebook, it may be shown to its target audience, but there’s the question of whether viewers will even notice it. People go to Facebook.com to use the product that Facebook offers: online socializing.

“In the ad world, there is a lot of discussion over how to calculate your return on investment in this kind of advertising because people are not engaged in advertising in the social network,” said Dustin Glasscoe, a marketing consultant for Vermont Farm Tables. “You aren’t shopping while on the social network.”

Some companies considering this method of advertising worry about the images their product may become associated with. If a MySpace user identified as a college-aged female searches through pictures of her ex-boyfriend’s drunken debauchery from the previous weekend, a company might not benefit from the female, college-aged user associating its ad with those images. But the majority of companies see online ads as necessary — no matter the uncertainty of it.

The legality and acceptable boundaries of behavioral advertising must be examined as online marketing becomes more popular. For many, it seems like Big Brother really is watching their every online move.

Last weekend, I created four new Facebook accounts for straight and gay male and female users to see just how the advertising on Facebook adapts to information in a user’s profile. The lesbian account I created generated ads for The Perfect Partner, a dating site “designed exclusively for today’s gay women by gay women” and for Proud Singles, another gay dating site. Both of the female accounts solicited ads for teeth whitening and weight loss secrets, while the male users solicited ads for achieving a six-pack and a study on gamers.

This advertising, while seemingly harmless, has consequences beyond being annoying — sometimes it highlights aspects of ourselves we may not necessarily be ready to reveal so brazenly to the world.
Business School junior Tyler Hauck said he removed “interested in men” from his Facebook profile to avoid being bombarded with gay-targeted ads while working on public computers in the Fishbowl.

“I got sick of being in public on a computer and having all those gay ads on the side,” Hauck said. “So I started giving them the thumbs down and they started not showing up. Some of them had shirtless guys and stuff and I didn’t find it appropriate.”

While people are starting to feel suffocated by the pervasive, and often invasive, world of advertising, the question remains of what could be done. For an answer, we could look to our neighbor to the north. Professors at the University of Ottawa’s Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic have issued a complaint with the Canada’s Office of the Privacy Commissioner over the issue, claiming that behavioral advertising invades people’s right to privacy. The group believes that companies that use such advertising are gathering personal information without consent, which may violate several federal Canadian laws. Our own Congress discussed the issue in July and is considering passing legislation to regulate the amount of probing an advertising company can do.

While legislative measures to protect the privacy of Internet users are pending, our every search and click is being watched and analyzed. At its advent, the Internet seemed to be a world of endless anonymity, where people could adopt new personas and find out the answers to questions they would never ask aloud. Now, it is now a constant reminder of the commercial identity we assume.