Tom Chi  

Target Acquired: Advertising and Ethics

June 24th, 2005 by Tom Chi :: see related comic

Well, it’s been over a year since the gmail beta launched. The original hubbub about spidering email text has died down, and life continues with just a little more advertisting than before. What’s interesting is that after a decade of new economy hype, most sites that make money do so in one of the oldest old media ways. There are differences, of course. For the first time in history we are dealing with advertising that can track everything we do, and that can learn/adapt in real time. Depending on who you are, this either sounds very scary, or extremely great.

I still have mixed feelings about advertising, even though OK/Cancel is primarily ad supported. Certainly, content-spidering algorithms have gotten better (we used to get ads for pandas and pantyhose) — but whenever I trace down who is actually getting placement, it’s often a disappointment.

While 99% of the ads on the web are useless (and some just stupid or offensive), I’m not in the camp that thinks that all advertising is bad. I think it’d actually be pretty neat if an ad had told me that the new Royksopp album was out or that a cool things like the solar backpack and terrapass existed. The problem of course is that you need to know a lot about me before you can provide ads that are of that caliber, and I may not want you to know all that.

So advertisers have approached the problem from two angles. The traditional advertisers have a crapload of identifying information (name, address, credit card history, credit records, etc, etc), and based on your demographics they pretty much spam you with direct mail or in email. The new-school advertisers try to collect everything about you *except* identifying information. So theoretically, they only know something like: Royksopp, Solar Energy, CCX, Art. In reality, they also know your IP address, they know your login is K3vinCh3ng, and they have access to all your email messages. So even though the specificially specific identifying information has not been given, it really isn’t that hard to figure out (e.g. parse an outgoing evite).

Even with all this information, advertisers usually still strike out. Either the attempt at targeting fails, or it is correct - but creepy. One example of the former: I used to get ads in my Yahoo mail about the Barton Springs mall in Austin, TX, even though I had been living in Seattle for several years. On the creepy side, everyone has had an instance where the advertiser just seemed to know too much. If only there was a way to take that data back, but that would require actual *laws* or actual corporate ethics on the part of the data-hording companies.

Although it is an unlikely outcome, it would be incredible if companies allowed customers to fully audit what information was being stored about them. If you know that I like certain types of music or that I bought compact flourescent bulbs, it doesn’t matter much to me. This is especially the case if I can feel assured that no identifying information is being stored or will be sought. If advertisers then take what they do know and use it serve up truly relevant ads, then all is good. Unfortunately, we are a long, long way away from this. Much of the problem is that the advertising pool is filled with shady businesses. From my vantage point, the debt consolidation and “free ipod” pyramid marketing scams still tend to get prime placement. If the mission is to not be evil, these are the first groups to cut off. Sadly, opening the system to customer self-auditing and closing down scammy advertisers takes more business ethics than anyone has been able to muster.

3 Responses to “Target Acquired: Advertising and Ethics”
Kristof wrote:

In Belgium companies are required by law to show you what data they have on you when you ask for it. You’re also allowed to demand changes to that data and even ask it to be removed entirely by simple request. Unsolicited email is prohibited by that same law. Opt-in mailinglists only. Every mail you do send must contain information to opt-out of their mailing lists.

You can read about the Belgian law on Privacy Protection in relation to the Processing of Personal Data on icri’s site.

Bob Salmon wrote:

Sorry if I’ve posted this on OKC before, but it’s a nice story of slapping the spammers.

My dad bought a camcorder using a credit deal offered by the shop (Dixons in the UK). As it included insurance cover in case he died he had to enter his date of birth. Camcorder was fine and he paid off the debt no problem.

A few months later he got a letter from Dixons saying: Dear Mr. Salmon, as it’s nearly your birthday why not treat yourself to …

This was an outrageous abuse of trust and also personal data. Bad news for Dixons was that in the UK it’s also illegal under the Data Protection Act 1998. (You have to register the uses to which you put personal data that you collect, and it’s illegal to use it for other purposes.) Further bad news for Dixons was that at the time my mum worked for the Data Protection Registrar’s Office (now called the Office of the Information Commissioner). She took the offending letter into work, passed it onto her colleagues who investigate naughty people and bwaa ha ha! Dixons felt the full force of the law.

I got junk mail from a mail order office supplies company (who’d got my details from the register of domain names and thought I ran a company instead of just a blog). I phoned them up and asked them to stop sending me any more catalogues. “Certainly sir” they said, and a few months later I received another one. I phoned up again and was told “certainly sir” again. A few months later still I got a third so I contacted the Information Commissioner’s Office and the nice people there told me to write a letter to the junk mailer threatening them with the Data Protection Act (Section 11, I think) if they persisted.

Surprise! I haven’t had anything more from them. Huzzah!

This is one of the instances where I’m glad I live in the UK rather than the US. There are still flaws here, but unbridled capitalist trampling of the populace has an occasional tap on the snout by the forces of decency.

Lucille wrote:

Interface your fears
on World Changing today:

& try NEWS-EUM!

World Changing Essay: The Means of Expression - Media, Creativity and Experience
by Jamais Cascio
“Get ready to spend the next couple of hours clicking in fascination.

Newseum, a site billing itself as “the interactive museum of news” has created “Today’s Front Pages,” a Flash-based interface to let users see the front page of over 425 newspapers across 45 countries. While many are in the United States or Europe, there are numerous papers from the rest of the world, too. Brazil, in particular, has an abundance of news outlets available online.

Pointing at a dot will show the current front page for the linked paper; clicking will give you a close-up of the front page in a new window. The close-up page will also allow you to head over to the newspaper’s site.

For me, a service like the Today’s Front Pages site is a useful tool for getting a quick glance at the global zeitgeist. What are people in Hong Kong concerned about today (bird flu)? Or India (student fees)? Or Chile (flooding)? Or Canada (the legalization of gay marriage)?

The least-represented continent is, unsurprisingly, Africa. A single Tunisian newspaper is available; clearly, either the Newseum needs better African links or the African newspapers need to start putting up images of their front pages…”

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OK/Cancel is a comic strip collaboration co-written and co-illustrated by Kevin Cheng and Tom Chi. Our subject matter focuses on interfaces, good and bad and the people behind the industry of building interfaces - usability specialists, interaction designers, human-computer interaction (HCI) experts, industrial designers, etc. (Who Links Here) ?