Behavioral targeting has been batted around by privacy advocates and regulators over the last year, but a new study from professors at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California, Berkeley has found that consumers not only want nothing to do with BT, they aren't interested in its side effect: better targeted ads.

The study, which surveyed 1000 Internet users on the phone, reiterated two major points made by privacy advocates — that consumers do not like being tracked online and they are confused about online privacy. 

Industry groups have argued that BT is the process necessary to serve consumers better and more targeted advertising. But this study found that consumers aren't interested in sacrificing privacy for advertising. For starters, 66% of respondents said they are not interested in tailored ads at all. That aversion increased when they learned how ads get targeted.

73% of respondents said tailored ads were not OK when it meant their behavior was tracked on a website. 84% said they did not want to be tracked via other websites and 86% said it was not OK when they were tracked offline.

And while younger people are seen as more tolerant of targeting online, the survey did not see a big difference in that demographic. 55% of respondents age 18 to 24 objected to tailored advertising.

The survey also demonstrated that American web users are confused about online privacy. The study asked a series of true or false questions about privacy issues and only one was answered correctly by a majority of respondents.

Joseph Turow, study author and professor of communication at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania tells The New York Times:

“I don’t think that behavioral targeting is something that we should eliminate, but I do think that we’re at a cusp of a new era, and the kinds of information that companies share and have today is nothing like we’ll see 10 years from now.”

That could easily be true, especially considering the kinds of regulations that could be enacted from figures like these from the study:

  • 69% of respondents said they’re in favor of laws that force a web site to reveal ALL data they’re tracking.
  • 92% favor an option to delete all of that data.

Showing that data to regulators could have deleterious effects on the entire online advertising business, not just behavioral targeting.

Of course the study didn't get into the pesky details of economics — like whether consumers would rather deal with advertising or pay for access to a website.

And according to Mike Shields, vice president of public policy at the IAB, the more consumers deal with online advertising, the more comfortable they become with it:

"It is clear that consumers love the content and services that online advertising pays for.  It is also clear that consumers have rejected the scattershot approach of spam messaging, and prefer to receive marketing messages that are relevant to their needs and desires.  This relevancy, the elimination of advertising 'noise' from people’s daily lives, is the promise that interactive advertising presents to consumers and companies alike."

The IAB and others have released a list of self-regulatory principles to ward off regualtion in the industry, but numbers like the ones in this study, that show overwhelming consumer discomfort with online practices, are not going to help their cause.

However, as long as advertising fuels online content, it's not clear that the discrepancy between what data is actually being collected and what consumers would like will ever be fixed. Privacy advocates might make some headway with BT, but even though consumers may not be interested in targeted advertising — fueled by behavioral targeting or not — it is something they'll be seeing more of.

Meghan Keane

Published 30 September, 2009 by Meghan Keane

Based in New York, Meghan Keane is US Editor of Econsultancy. You can follow her on Twitter: @keanesian.

721 more posts from this author

You might be interested in

Comments (2)



This research might be missing the point a bit.

The point of ‘behavioural’ is to reduce wastage of mass communication through targeting… not to try to raise appeal of the ad to each individual.

On ad individual level, an ad is an ad - irrespective of the ‘delivery vehicle’ (whether behavioural or not)

And let's be honest - no-one ‘wants’ advertising!  If its more targeted, it is likely to be be better tolerated. If its fun, interesting, shocking, strikes a chord, it is likely to be better received. This has nothing to do with how the ad happens to be served.

almost 9 years ago


katie frothingham

Not all targeting and retargeting companies should be blamed or equated with Facebook. Traditionally, behavioral targeting utilizes data taken from anonymous pixels on IP addresses. This data does not describe whether the person is male or female, their address, e-mail, or any personal information at all. Technically, behavioral targeting could be a positive thing. Think about it. Companies don't waste money sending advertisements to people who aren't interested in their products, and consumers get advertisements that might bring them to a site with information they appreciate on it. for more information about safe behavioral targeting visit or follow @owneriq on twitter.

almost 8 years ago

Save or Cancel

Enjoying this article?

Get more just like this, delivered to your inbox.

Keep up to date with the latest analysis, inspiration and learning from the Econsultancy blog with our free Digital Pulse newsletter. You will receive a hand-picked digest of the latest and greatest articles, as well as snippets of new market data, best practice guides and trends research.