Online Ad Industry: Advertising Is 'Creepy'

PSAs Play on Scary Vintage Imagery to Convince Otherwise

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NEW YORK ( -- "Hey, This Banner Ad Can Tell Where You Live. Mind If I Come Over and Sell You Some Stuff?"

That's some of the ad copy that will start popping up on computers across the country starting today, rendered in graphics reminiscent of '50s thrillers such as "Anatomy of a Murder" and "Vertigo" as well as the Communist scare propaganda of the day.

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The point, of course, is to convince consumers -- and regulators -- that online advertising isn't creepy at all.

The messages are part of the online ad industry's promised PSA campaign, "Privacy Matters," which starts today, fueled by 500 million ad impressions from Google, Aol, The New York Times, Yahoo and other online publishers, as well as ad serving from Microsoft's Atlas.

The campaign is an attempt to educate the public about what online ad targeting is and isn't and to stave off looming regulation that seems more likely with the Obama Administration's new appointments to the Federal Trade Commission.

A down payment
The Interactive Advertising Bureau believes 500 million impressions will be sufficient to reach every American online, but CEO Randall Rothenberg said it's just a down payment. The IAB expects more pro bono PSAs from agencies in the coming year, and will raise money to buy premium placements on major portals.

Ironically, the ads themselves won't be targeted, or even frequency-capped, so they'll be hitting consumers early and often.

There's a growing concern in the industry that legislators and consumers don't understand data collection and targeting and conflate ad targeting with various internet scams, spam, spyware and malware.

"We're afraid if the legislators fall prey to this they will put in place regulations that will make the internet less relevant and less rich," Mr. Rothenberg said.

Unorthodox messaging
The campaign itself is unorthodox both in the messaging and amount of information the industry is hoping to deliver within a banner. Indeed, in order to understand why ads aren't "creepy" or why no banner can really tell where you live, consumers will have to mouse over the ad, which pulls down a shade full of text.

"Our job is to separate behavioral targeting from all the other internet privacy issues out there," said Trevor Kaufman, CEO of Schematic, which created the campaign on a pro bono basis.

The typefaces, disjointed limbs and red, black and white graphics pay homage to the movie posters Saul Bass created in the '50s and '60s for directors Alfred Hitchcock and Otto Preminger.

Admittedly, it's a complicated issue and asks a lot of consumers to fully understand. And unless they do interact with the ad, they're getting a different message entirely. "I don't believe users will internalize the message without paying attention to the ad itself," Mr. Kaufman said.

The point of the campaign is to drive a click-through to the IAB's "Privacy Matters" site, which will provide deeper information, foster dialog, and answer consumer questions.

Schematic tested the campaign across Hotmail over the past few weeks. While they didn't measure interaction rates with the ads, click-through rates ran 0.5%, slightly higher than the average rate of 0.4% Mr. Kaufman typically sees for a banner.

The campaign is part of the industry's attempt to head off regulation -- at the state and federal level -- through public education and by convincing legislators the advertising industry can regulate itself.

The IAB showed the campaign to some privacy advocates, FTC staff and legislators ahead of the launch. One prominent opponent was impressed with the creative but not the message.

"This might win a Cannes award but it won't have any fans among privacy advocates," said Jeff Chester, president of the Center for Digital Democracy, noting that the FTC is holding the first of three hearings on online privacy in Washington on Monday. "I think it's too late; the debate has moved on."

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