The online ad industry is fighting back complaints that it violates consumer privacy with a creepy new ad campaign. Literally, new online ads defending online advertising tactics are running with the tagline "advertising is creepy."

Much of the confusion about the ongoing privacy wars online comes down to consumer ignorance on the matter. The Internet Advertising Bureau is hoping to change that with the campaign that launched today — set to reach every American online. But even confronted with the details of online advertising, will consumers listen?

Congress is currently investigating the practices employed by advertisers to track and serve advertising online. Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) has said he plans to introduce new federal legislation that would require companies to notify users about online ad targeting, and in some circumstances, obtain their explicit consent before using any of their personal information. But companies that use targeting have repeatedly argued that they need to follow consumer behavior online to make advertising more useful to consumers. And now they're going directly to consumers to show how.

The new campaign, created pro bono by WPP's Schematic, consists of banner ads with copy like "Advertising is creepy" and "Hey, this banner can tell where you live. Mind if we come over and sell you stuff?"

Users that click through the ads and on the IAB's Privacy Matters page, which contains information on targeting, different kinds of advertising and cookies.

More than a dozen publishers, including Microsoft, Google's YouTube, and AOL, have committed to donate a combined 500 million impressions for the initiative.

The IAB thinks that that 500 million impressions will be able to reach every American online, but sees this campaign as just the beginning of efforts to educate consumers on the details of online advertising. The group expects agencies to produce more pro bono PSAs in 2010 and plans to raise money to buy premium placements on major portals.

As AdAge writes:

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

The ads are part of an ongoing campaign by the online advertising industry to inform consumers about how their private information is actually used online. When consumers — and legislators — hear talk about user information being used online, they often respond negatively without listening to the details of how it works — or how they can benefit from advertisers knowing some of their demographic data and browsing history.

Lots of advertising companies argue that they use targeting in legitimate ways and are tired of being lumped together with internet scams, spam, spyware and malware whenever the subject of privacy comes up. But there are plenty of privacy advocates that think advertisers aren't sharing the whole story.

Jeff Chester, Privacy advocate and executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, tells MediaPost of the new campaign ads:

"They are ignoring the growing consensus that cookies and IP addresses are personally identifiable."

But even if the information is correct, an all-out campaign to inform consumers has no guarantee of actually reaching them. A test of the campaign in late October and early November yielded a click-through rate of 0.5%.

Many consumers have shown through their browsing history that they don't care to read the fine print — and even bold print — about their personal privacy. That's why the movement for legislation has been gaining steam. If consumers don't take the time to make decisions about their personal privacy, the argument goes, then Congress will have to do it for them.

The advertising industry believes that when consumers are informed about the legitimate ways their information is used online, they will be comfortable with sharing. But unfortunately for online advertisers, there's no guarantee consumers will read the details.

Images: IAB

Meghan Keane

Published 4 December, 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 (1)


Elizabeth Crane

Google's personalized search needs to be looked at more closely. Lots of complaints going on in forums about them being too closely involved in what we search and where we go online.

over 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.