My goal: Stop the Internet from frequently showing me ads for products I don’t care about or need, such as Preparation H or Gillette’s new Venus Bikini Trimmer, which sounds positively terrifying and totally useless to me because, among other reasons better left unsaid, I only buy swimsuits that reach my knees.
And so, using new tools designed by advertisers already tracking our every digital move, I told the Internet the following things: I am not over 65, as it had thought. I don’t want travel ads unless they are for Europe. I really like fast food. I like gadgets. I am not an executive. (Ha!) Please, please, please stop showing me ads for new cars. And I would like more deals for flowers, since I often find myself seeking absolution from Mrs. Rosenwald.
My experiment, which I code-named “Operation Track Me More,” comes as Google, Yahoo and other digital advertising platforms and networks face increasing pressure from lawmakers and government agencies, which are examining a slew of proposals for “Do Not Track” laws and other regulations that threaten the ad industry’s Holy Grail: getting the right ad to the right person at the right time.
Privacy advocates say the little cookies that advertisers slip onto our computers to analyze our browsing habits are creepy, invasive and potential ammunition for insurers or employers. Advertisers say that those claims are unfounded and that ad networks are anonymously tracking our behavior so they can improve our lives by offering products we need or want, rather than, say, bikini trimmers dangled at men.
Although it is unclear exactly how much online advertising is behaviorally targeted, Google has gone so far as to create this tag line for its ad focus of late: “There’s a perfect ad for everyone.” The company is increasingly hyping a world where advertisers bid against one another — in the milliseconds it takes to load a Web page — to show us relevant ads based on who we are and what we like. The alternative, advertisers say, is akin to spam.
“If you go back to one of the earlier phases of Internet marketing, the big complaint was about spam,” said Randall Rothenberg, president of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, a trade group for advertisers. “There’s a continuum here. On one end is spam, and on the other is relevant ads. If you want to shut down the relevance technologies, the end result is undeniably and indisputably an increase in spam.”
Critics think that there is much more at stake and that the future is scary, not exciting.
“This is not about your privacy in buying a pair of pants or a shirt or even a book,” said Jeff Chester, the executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a fierce critic of ad targeting. “This is about a very powerful system that consumers are incapable of understanding and maneuvering around.”