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On Privacy and Advertising

Published: February 20, 2014

Author: Sean Nowlin

Years of working in the online advertising industry can help mold (or strengthen) certain viewpoints.  For me, how I feel about privacy is a big one. I had always taken free online services for granted.  Never gave much thought about how the company might be making money off me.  Having to deal with ads in Gmail, for example, was just something I didn’t even care much about.  Technology is the future – that’s pretty much how I felt.
For those who might not know, Steven Spielberg enlisted many futurists to consult on his 2002 sci-fi action/mystery tale Minority Report. Among the cool ideas that helped set the stage for the look of the movie (Self- driving Maglev cars? Yes please), one in particular stood out for me. When John Anderton (played by Tom Cruise) walked into a Gap, his eyes were scanned and a holographic figure started asking about satisfaction of a recent purchase. Now, there is a bit more backstory that explains the scene, but needless to say the message didn’t match the person. The point is that he was targeted using specific data. Those futurists foresaw an era full of advertising tailored to the individual.
Let’s bring it back to the present. I know fully understand that my personal data (surfing, email content, etc.) is how companies make money offering free services. It’s a tradeoff I have come to expect and accept. In fact, if I’m going see advertising dozens of times a day, I want it to be relevant. (Side note – Many times per day I see banners for Ohio University’s Online MBA…regardless of the fact that I already have an MBA. Can’t help but think of the waste aggregated across many others like me.) I have purchased many items online thanks to dynamic retargeting or other similar tactics. Again, my view about online privacy was shaped by my experience. A couple of years ago, I didn’t think most other people really cared or bothered to think about their privacy while surfing on their MacBooks or checking into Foursquare on their iPhones. But Edward Snowden may have changed this for many people.


According to eMarketer, 9 out of 10 internet users are concerned about online privacy. Now, to be sure, there is a difference between caring and actually doing something about it. (For instance, the report says that three-quarters of respondents said they were more likely to look for privacy certificates and seals. But will they actually change up behavior because they notice something?). Regardless, thanks to the Edward Snowden leaks, more people are beginning to realize that their free email accounts aren’t really free.
So what does that mean, exactly? As we move past the initial outrage, people are going to start either paying for services that don’t use personal data for targeting purposes, or they will accept the status quo. Situations like the Target data breach make it harder to see people simply accepting the current state of affairs. But what are the options? Pay for a service that was formerly free? I don’t think that is likely.
The advertising industry will have to continue investing in fraud prevention, offer consumers a blatantly obvious opt-out option, and continue to improve targeting & messaging. That last point brings it home for me. If we’re still going to operate in a world based on personal data, make sure to make each touchpoint count. Errant targeting and bad messaging can quickly degrade a campaign. Improve that and the effort and dollars won’t be wasted.

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