Online privacy has never looked more cuddly than it does on the New York and D.C. subways. A cartoon bear graces an ad meant to assure riders that the data in their Google accounts can be protected from --well, as the ad suggests -- cartoon robbers.
The Digital Advertising Alliance, a trade consortium, launched an initiative last month to demystify online-ad targeting. Some ads star a guy wearing a sandwich board and Chuck Taylors, while a video features the tiny turquoise triangle that alerts internet users that the ad they're viewing is targeted based on their browsing habits. But in the video, the image has little legs and arms.
Brand privacy's overarching creative attribute? Cuteness. Adland has traditionally put a cartoon face on unsavory topics, like the Charmin toilet-paper bears.
"Who hates cartoons? Nobody," said Greg Stuart, global CEO of the Mobile Marketing Association. "There needs to be some proper education so consumers have informed choice on what's really going on here."
The DAA's goal was to personalize the icon, said Sarah Hudgins, director of public policy for one participating trade group, the Interactive Advertising Bureau. MRM, Salt Lake City, developed the campaign.
"Give it a face and make it relatable," Ms. Hudgins said.
These efforts are coming years after online-ad stakeholders, lobbyists and regulators have wrestled over the issue in Washington. There, the topic has provided legislators with fodder for soundbites and proclamations poking holes in the web's safety net. With privacy's rising profile, giants feel the need to bring the matter down from Capitol Hill to consumers.
"There's so much more attention on privacy than there was two years ago," said Justin Brookman, director of consumer privacy for the Center for Democracy and Technology. "Companies haven't had to have that conversation with consumers in the past."
Beth Givens, director of consumer advocacy group Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, said there are three major reasons online privacy has gained prominence.
First, Congress is interested, and both the Federal Trade Commission and Department of Commerce have published reports on the topic in the past year. Second, Facebook and Google have raised suspicions in changing privacy policies for their hundreds of millions of users.
Finally, Ms. Givens quoted a data exec who called 2011 the "year of the breach," with personal information compromised at companies such as Sony and Epsilon.
"When you start to add up the numbers, essentially every U.S. adult has had their financial information breached in the last five years," said Joel Reidenberg, director of Fordham University's Center on Law and Information Policy. "There's this constant bombardment that your data is being shared, but you don't know how."
This is where "online privacy" can mean disparate things. The term combines a compromised credit-card number with a J.Crew ad targeted to someone who recently Googled "pants."
"The terminology is bad," Mr. Reidenberg said. "It conflates lots of different interests and types of concerns and non-concerns."
On the surface, consumers are definitely worried about privacy. A recent McCann Erickson survey found that "erosion of personal privacy" was the No. 2 concern among more than 6,500 consumers polled worldwide, ranking higher than terrorism or climate change.
But within that concern, the same group said they fret most about the security of their financial information and reputation. Getting tracked on websites or email to recommend products or services ranked lower -- just slightly more bothersome than being body-scanned at the airport.
"Both get lumped into a big ball of fear," said MMA's Mr. Stuart.
Google launched its "Good to Know" campaign, from agency M&C Saatchi Worldwide, in the U.K. and Germany last fall; the subway and print ads came to the U.S. this January. The company is spending "tens of millions of dollars" in both continents, a spokesman said.
"Our customer base is broader than just advertisers and includes not only everyday people but businesses [and] governments," a Microsoft spokeswoman said in a statement.
Likewise, tiny search engine DuckDuckGo.com bought billboards in California proclaiming: "Google Tracks You. We Don't."