Operation Track Me More: A writer invites the Web to offer more relevant ads

The other night, after putting the kids to bed and polishing off some cookie-dough ice cream, I went down to the basement and offered the Internet advice on how it could better track me.

I can’t report that I did this with trepidation, that I trembled as my browser opened, that the lights flickered, that privacy advocates dispatched National Security Agency operatives to pry my cold fingers from the mouse. There was none of that. It was easy. I did it with zeal.

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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.”

Tools of the trade

Advertisers have reacted to regulators’ concerns by offering tools, which I used during Operation Track Me More, that help people adjust ad settings or opt out from tracking. This can be done in several ways: by going to platforms such as Yahoo or Google and searching for the ad preference page, by mousing over to individual sites hosted by advertising industry groups or by clicking on tiny new icons advertisers are placing in ads, labeled “Ad Choices.” Critics say the various options are too cumbersome and don’t protect sensitive data, such as health interests.

The new tools also offer ways to increase tracking — to essentially edit the vast dossiers that advertisers already have on us. On one ad network, I specifically disliked ad categories such as autos, financial services and real estate, instead replacing them with HD televisions, flowers and toys. Also allergies, which are basically my only concern every spring. The ad industry says adding and subtracting interest categories provides more control and transparency. Popping into my head: an image of a fox guarding a henhouse.

Let’s be certain about one thing: My tracking efforts placed me squarely in the majority and minority of Internet users. Most online consumers, according to studies, indicate that too many of the ads they see online are not relevant to them. I am happy this group has welcomed me with open arms, and I look forward to get-togethers. However, few of us don’t mind being tracked. Studies have shown that up to 80 percent of consumers aren’t comfortable with tracking technology or being tracked, even if it leads to better ads.

One reason: It’s disturbing. Another reason: Many people think ads are useless no matter what.

“Why would they trade data for ads when they don’t see ads as beneficial one way or the other? They are just getting in the way,” said Aleecia M. McDonald, a researcher who studies ad tracking. “One woman in a study put it nicely: ‘Ads are like slow people on the sidewalk in front of you. There’s nothing you can do. You just have to wait.’ ”

But as I found out, relevant ads can grab attention. I played a little turn-it-on/turn-it-off game with AOL. I clicked over to its ad preference settings and saw what it already discerned about me: that I liked gadgets, news and other consumer products. So they had me somewhat figured out already. Then I spent a lot of time on AOL’s various Web sites studying the ads. I kept noticing one particular ad for a wireless charging gadget for cellphones. The ad followed me around AOL’s sites. I eventually I clicked on it to see more.

A study performed by Yahoo explains what was happening: Consumers spend 25 percent more time fixating on relevant ads than those that aren’t relevant. How’s this for spooky: Their pupil dilation actually increases 27 percent. I can’t see my own pupils, though I bet they dilated while I was following this ad around.

When I went into AOL’s settings and opted out of ad targeting, the new ads that turned up were useless for me. Car insurance. Banking. LivingSocial deals I didn’t want. Leave me alone! Please show me something that will cure my volatile sneezing spasms every spring.

A relevant question

There are dozens, and perhaps hundreds, of so-called ad networks that place cookies on our computers so that advertisers will learn more about us, and not all of them can be tweaked. It’s also not entirely clear which ad network works for which advertiser placing ads on which Web site. That all probably explains why my overall ad-browsing experience didn’t totally change with my efforts.

There were, however, signs of relevancy. In my day-to-day surfing, I noticed a striking increase in the number of gadget and computer ads. I noticed flower ads. I noticed about a 20 percent decline in car ads. Did I also still see ads for beauty products? Yes. Did I also see ads for Goldman Sachs? Yes. Did those ads annoy me? Yes.

But there was an opportunity for existential transformation, too. Once one sees the true power of tracking, the idea of relevancy morphs into a difficult question: Do I want to keep turning over ever more of my life to faceless algorithms and corporate behemoths? It is, in fact, creepy. Seeing ads so perfectly tailored gave me the urge to look over my shoulder, but where?

And then there is this question: Are we naive to think advertising can be like the olden days, when we jammed quarters into big metal boxes to retrieve newspapers that contained the same ads that thousands and thousands of other people saw, too? Or is that world really gone for good, replaced by a World Wide Web that is constantly evolving and getting ever more personal, to the point of being a mirror of us?

I pondered those questions for a while without quite coming up with an answer. Then I went back to my browser to catch up on sports news, which I no longer get from that printed newspaper in a box. I get my sports news online. And there, next to some hockey news, was an ad for digital cameras at Best Buy. I thought about it for a second. Then I clicked on it.

 
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