With increased scrutiny from the Federal Trade Commission, online advertisers and those who work with them are providing more options for consumers in efforts to ward off regulation on the industry. Last week, the Internet Advertising Bureau launched a new campaign meant to discourage irrational targeting fears. And today Yahoo launched a tool that will allow consumers to control the marketing messages they receive online.

Neither of these moves guarantee that regulators will backoff legislating online advertising, but advertisers are hoping that informing consumers will prove their best bet to avoid privacy laws. If they succeed, it will also lead to better advertising.

Yahoo's beta launch of the Ad Interest Manager begins today and will allow users to choose from close to 400 categories that they'd like to receive advertising about. It also provides users with Yahoo's "educated guesses" about what types of ads they want to receive.

Anne Toth, Yahoo's vice president of policy and head of privacy tells The New York Times:

"We're really happy about being able to give this kind of transparency and control to users," she said. "I'm certainly hearing from users that they are demanding greater control of their online experience."

Moves in the direction of more participation from consumers are smart ways to get privacy advocates more comfortable with the state of online advertising. Yahoo, Google and a few other companies now provide fine-tuned privacy controls, but the real trick is in getting consumers to know and understand their rights and figure out how much advertising they'd prefer.

Today was also the first of a series of workshops on privacy held by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, and according to Alan Davidson, Google's Director of Public Policy and Government Affairs who spoke at the event, Google's Ad Preferences (in beta since September) bring in only tens of thousands of users each week. That means that most consumers, even given the chance to opt out of advertising, often don't do it.

A common argument among advertisers is that informed consumers are willing to deal with targeting to get more targeted advertising, which was repeated today by Jules Polonetsky, Co‐Chair, Director, for the Future of Privacy Forum Polonetsky.

According to DigidayDaily, she said that "if publishers and sites spent the same kind of time explaining to users the benefits of targeting as they did implementing the science, much of the argument about online privacy would go away."

Meanwhile, Joseph Turow, associate dean for grad studies at the University of Pennsylvania says that people who are informed about behavioral targeting would opt out of targeted at a rate of 75%.

But a new survey by market research firm Synovate found that almost a third (32%) of Americans say they would be open to having their online and television viewing habits monitored if it meant receiving ads more relevant to their interests. Another 8% said they would be open to such monitoring with "few, if any, concerns." 9% said that they do not want to change the ads they see.

That still leaves another 35% of respondants who would reject tracking technology because of concerns about monitoring services collecting data about them.

Those numbers are more optimistic for advertisers than most. So far, in practice most consumers don't change their privacy settings. But if they express concerns with tracking technology, that's not going to help when regulators come knocking.

Offering technology like Yahoo's tools are the best bet for advertisers hoping to aclimate consumers to what behavioral targeting really means. According to The New York Times:

"Ari Schwartz, vice president and chief operating officer of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a privacy and digital rights group... praised Yahoo's new tool, saying it appears to be a useful service for users concerned about their privacy with targeted ads. 'Having a competition around who makes the better [privacy] access controls is one of the best things that we could hope for,' he said."

The other benefit of these tools, of course, is improved advertising. Advertisers are fighting a war of attrition with regulators trying to curb their intrusions into the lives of consumers. But if consumers get in the habit of telling publishers what they are and are not interested in, it will help show what advertising does and doesn't work online. If its new tool is accessible enough, it will help Yahoo serve more relevant advertising. Now they just have to get people to use it.

Image: Yahoo

Meghan Keane

Published 8 December, 2009 by Meghan Keane

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

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