Online Targeting: Perhaps Privacy Isn’t the Problem

Composite Portrait by Pelle Cass

Composite Portrait by Pelle Cass

Some “facts” you might not know about me, particularly if you’re going by the picture on the upper right hand side of this page.

I’m a married male head of household who speaks Spanish. I have two teenage children and a high school diploma.  I’m retired. My income is below $50,000. I’ve recently purchased luxury cars and cruises. I have only one interest: sports. I’m in-market for every type of car you can think of: economy, compact, luxury sedan, full-size SUV and a motorcycle!

Other purchases I’m considering: magazines, theme park tickets, auto parts and accessories, and men’s clothing.

That, at least, is who a major real-time bidding platform thinks I am, based on several years of browsing history.

I have never wiped my cookies.

Here are the more factual facts: I’m a single, childless, working woman who has owned only one vehicle (over two decades ago, not in the U.S.). I haven’t watched or participated in a sport event since gym ceased to be mandatory. Cruises? Once, in 1983. Last theme park visit: 1971. I don’t speak Spanish (but do know French and German), and possess a graduate degree.

With zero effort on my part and many years of data, my online profile is even more wrong than Jeffrey Rosen’s two deliberately falsified online identities, created for a feature in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine

The piece is an indictment of real time bidding (which the author occasionally conflates with retargeting, which is something completely different) and, by extension, online targeting. While Rosen mentions, almost in passing, that this (erroneous) collected data is anonymous, he nevertheless sounds the alarm about “obvious privacy concerns” because “computers can link our digital profiles with our real identities so precisely that it will soon be hard to claim that the profiles are anonymous in any meaningful sense.” Big data, he maintains, will effectively provide advertisers with your DNA map once they triangulate your email font with your shirt color and driving habits.

Do Not Track aside, this despite the fact that virtually everything – everything – in my BlueKai profile is false, excepting the fact that I do live in the New York State/Northern New Jersey area – which hardly takes a bloodhound to figure out.

In other words, there’s indeed a problem with digital advertising. If ad platforms aren’t delivering the targeting that advertisers are paying for, the emperor has no clothes.

More perplexing than Rosen’s indictment of real-time platforms for violating privacy (while, apparently, not even knowing such basics as the gender of the otherwise anonymous person whose privacy they’re purportedly violating), he goes on to lament the erosion, of all things, of our individuality as a result of receiving targeted ads.

It’s a strange logic:

‘“You might find that people who have a luxury car tend to have a high propensity to buy some kind of biking gear, so a person who expresses a high preference for luxury cars might be a good target for biking gear, even though they don’t yet bike.” But this leaves no possibility for individuality, eccentricity or the possibility of developing tastes and preferences that differ from those of people you superficially resemble.”

Waitaminnit. Who suffers if I’m served with an ad for a bike because it’s falsely assumed I own a luxury car? Everyone on the equation but me is negatively impacted: the advertiser pays for a useless impression; the bidding platform’s credibility is damaged; and the publisher, already getting lower rates for running this type of advertising, risks being viewed as an ineffective medium by both the vendor and the advertiser.

Me? I just ignore the ad, like the other 80 percent of people who use the web (Pew).

Most difficult of all to comprehend are the author’s claims that somehow online targeting will lead to a level of personalization that will erode “common culture” and “shared reality.”

Global culture has become all too common, in the most literal sense of that word. The internet offers opportunities to discover new things, to plunge into obscure fields of interest, and to find others who share uncommon passions. It’s this alternative to “shared reality” that inspired me to leave a career in television for this brave new world – a place where I could find others who share my often offbeat interests (Sports? As if.  Japanese cinema? Absolutely!).

Finally, the Grey Lady ignores the most salient fact of all. Most of the web, like almost every other media channel, is made possible by advertising – a fact not once mentioned in this story made possible by advertising

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5 thoughts on “Online Targeting: Perhaps Privacy Isn’t the Problem

  1. Rebecca, as usual, you are right on target. The online data industry is in need of some maturity… and lots of third party validation of the quality of what is being sold out there. Privacy is largely a “monster under the bed” issue and with effective oversight to ensure bad-actors don’t proliferate, the consumer doesn’t have much to worry about.

    • Great point, Russell – but how would a third party validate all that information without rousting the privacy monster out from under the bed?

  2. I love this article. You hit the nail on the head. The average profile created by online data companies still can be quite erroneous. For example, I am an older woman according to Yahoo. :)The state of the industry is lagging relative to the public perception. Hi Russell! :)

    • That settles it, Hooman. You are woman, I am man. We are getting married and honeymooning in a theme park. Thanks to targeting, I have finally found my soul mate

  3. Love love love your closing. I know a lot of journalists, whose paychecks are largely based on ad dollars, who let an inbred ‘church and state’ snottiness about the crassness of advertising influence their coverage. That said, the NYTimes is more heavily paid subscription based now than that any time in its history. Subs are beginning to win.

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