You are being targeted

It sounds so benevolent: targeted advertising. The proper name is behavioral targeting (BT). It is becoming one of the most controversial vehicles for reaching consumers in this digital age.

The goal of BT is to deliver to the advertiser an audience interested in a particular product or service. The more accurate the targeting, the more valuable the list. Until now, most have assumed that television viewers and Web surfers would appreciate selective advertising. For instance, I don’t have little kids, so I don’t want to see diaper commercials. However, I am interested in HDTV sets, so give me an ad on the latest new LCD and plasma displays, and I’ll watch.

Until now, most have assumed that BT is a win-win for both advertiser and viewer. But, maybe it's not.

Annenberg study

The Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and the USC Berkley School of Law pooled their expertise and looked closely at the subject of BT and its acceptance by viewers. The study, “Americans reject tailored advertising and three activities that enable it,” does not reinforce Madison Avenue’s view that Americans don’t care about privacy.

The first sentence of the report’s overview states, “Contrary to what many marketers claim, most adult Americans (66 percent) do not want marketers to tailor advertisements to their interests. Moreover, when Americans are informed of three common ways that marketers gather data about people in order to tailor ads, even higher percentages — between 73 percent and 86 percent — say they would not want such advertising.”

The hearts of Madison Avenue executives must have just stopped when they read that. That is not what they wanted us to believe. And, it’s not what they have been telling all of us for some years.

The benefits of BT

Marketing executives have been loudly portraying the benefits of tracking television viewers and Web users for years. The benefit (they say) is that a person’s behavior can be used to predict their interests. Knowing a person has clicked on two stories about luxury cars tells the advertiser that this person may be interested in seeing an ad about a Lexus or Cadillac. Advertisers believe that history is a good predictor of a person’s interest. If a person is reading pages about the common flu, they may be a hot prospect for an ad about Tylenol or Nyquil. Armed with this type of historical information, it’s easy to create and deliver content to a specific audience that may have higher than average interest.

Tracking a person’s shopping and viewing habits is becoming increasingly more sophisticated. You are probably participating in BT and may not realize it. I’m guilty of participating in two ways. First, I have a grocery card for every food store in which I shop. Hence, those stores now know that I like Cheerios, Folgers coffee and ice cream. I don’t have a problem with that because without that grocery card, I can’t receive the discounts. I have chosen (maybe forced is a better word) to trade my privacy for savings.

The second way I participate in BT is through the use of cookies. I never delete cookies. So, if your Web site puts a cookie on my computer saying that I recently looked up Kirstie Alley (I really did), maybe you have a commercial that will appeal to me, like an advertisement for her new docu-reality TV series. In this example, I may not realize that the ad for Oprah’s new network (OWN) was based on my behavior, but I’ll probably watch it. Despite the apparent benefits of BT, there can be a significant downside to letting someone else know where you’ve been and what you’ve done.

You’re being Flashed

For instance, did you realize that it may be difficult, if not impossible, to erase your browsing history? Sure you can use the browser’s “erase cookies” function, but are they really gone?

A story in Wired magazine titled, “You deleted your cookies? Think again,” looked at the study “Flash Cookies and Privacy,” which examined the use of Flash cookies by popular Web sites. The study said that more than 50 percent of the sites examined were using Flash cookies to store information about users' activity.

Adobe Flash cookies are special and practically invisible cookies with special attributes. And, when it comes to BT applications, Adobe Flash cookies provide some especially useful features, which make them perfect for tracking and storing information about a user’s activities. First, they may hold up to 100KB of information. That’s 25 times what the typical HTTP browser cookie can hold.

Second, they are extremely hard to kill. Even if a user goes through the browser process to erase their cookies, the Adobe Flash cookies remain. A browser’s “erase/delete cookies” function will not remove the Flash cookies. And, don’t bother looking in your browser’s cookie folder for these cookies. Flash cookies are stored in a special Macromedia folder so your browser typically won’t even see them. They are virtually invisible.

Our new hope and change government loves this invisible tracking scheme. When checked by researchers, the site,, was found to have installed a Flash cookie called “userid” on visitors’ computers. Could someone in the White House be building an e-mail list? Of course, that would be illegal, but since when have laws stopped White House staffs from doing anything their bosses wanted?

Another downside of Flash cookies

Flash cookies cannot be kept out through a browser’s cookie privacy controls. This means even if you tell the browser “don’t load cookies,” the Flash tracking objects will still get recorded onto your machine.

The UC Berkley study also reported that privacy policies rarely disclose the use of Flash cookies, and user controls to implement effective privacy preferences are lacking. In fact, Flash cookies are so new to the scene, most Web users don’t even know about them.

It is possible to erase Adobe Flash cookies, but you have to go to the Adobe Web site and follow a long list of instructions to do so. If you want to delete your Adobe Flash cookies, visit here and here. The process is confusing, so follow the instructions carefully. Unfortunately, next time you’re back on the Internet, you’ll get “Flashed” again and have to restart the cookie cleaning procedure all over.

Flash zombies

If that’s not enough to make you look over your shoulder, Adobe Flash cookies can even be resurrected from the dead. Some Web sites implement a procedure called “respawning.” With this practice, even after a user erases the Flash cookies, that cookie’s unique ID can be reassigned back to a new cookie again using the original Flash data from the cookies’ backup data. You just thought that zombie was dead.

Two companies, Clearspring and QuantCast, provide the zombie service to other Web sites. Clearspring makes the popular AddThis tool and used its Flash cookie to reinstate deleted browser cookies for, and, according to the above report. Clearspring CEO Hooman Radfas says his company collects data on some 525 million unique users per month. I’ll bet you and I both are among his “data.”

More regulation needed

Both the Annenberg and USC Berkeley studies looked the issue of regulation. More is needed, according to the authors.

Advertisers sometimes claim that it’s only old people who are concerned about privacy. Not so according to the Annenberg study. More than half (55 percent) of 18-24 year olds (Gen Y) do not want tailored advertising. Emphasizing their desire for privacy, 86 percent of this same audience said they didn’t want tailored ads if it would be based on tracking behavior from Web sites other than the one they are currently visiting.

Walt Disney’s CEO Robert Iger told a July 2009 Fortune Brainstorm Tech conference that media companies should use individual tracking ads to target advertising. He claimed that younger people “don’t care” about privacy. “Kids don’t care,” Iger said.

Mr. Iger, people young and old do care about privacy. Advice to advertisers: Be careful how you collect and use BT information. Abuse it at your own risk.