Poll: Targeted Advertising Is Not the Bogeyman [Updated]

Nearly 70% like at least some tailored Internet ads

Consumers may be worried about Internet privacy, but targeted advertising is the least of them. In fact, only 4 percent were concerned about behavioral targeting, according to a Zogby Analytics poll commissioned by the Digital Advertising Alliance.

Among 1,000 adults polled over two days in early April, the biggest privacy concern was identity theft (39 percent), viruses and malware (33 percent), government surveillance (12 percent) and cyber bullying (4 percent).

The DAA conducted the study as part of its charter to preserve interest-based advertising and provide a counterpoint to other polls that found consumers mistrust how companies use their data. 

"Some other studies have used emotional words. If it uses the word 'tracking' and doesn't define what it is, it can mean a lot of things. For the advertising industry, we've said what it means and that the results of the poll bear this out," said Lou Mastria, the DAA's managing director.

According to the results of the poll, consumers actually prefer targeted ads with nearly 70 percent responding that they'd like at least some ads tailored directly to their interests, compared to only 16 percent that preferred to see randomly selected ads for products and services. A full 40 percent preferred that all their ads be targeted.

Consumers are also pretty savvy when it comes to understanding that ads make it possible for free content with 75 percent preferring the ad-supported Internet model.

"We asked real specific questions about the real-world proposition, the value exchange between advertising and the experience on the Internet," Mastria said. "And that yields clear answers."

Or at least the poll yielded the answers the DAA wanted, according to Joseph Turow, a professor at the Annenberg School of Communications, who analyzed the poll. "The questions were designed to get the answer the DAA wanted," he said.

For example, take the poll question: "What is your biggest concern about the Internet?" The question yielded only 4 percent responding "behaviorally targeted Internet advertising." "People don't know what 'behaviorally targeted Internet advertising' is, so the answer is not surprising," Turow said.

Another question Turow took issue with was: "Would you rather see Internet ads for random/generic products and services, or ads for products and services that reflect your interests?" Here, Turow concluded the answers actually undermine the point the DAA is tryiing to make because only 40 percent said they preferred "ads directed to my interests." The rest, 60 percent, were unsure, wanted random ads, or wanted both.

"What's really going on with behavioral advertising is really against what people want," Turow said. "People want control and don't want to feel that they've been pushed in a certain direction."

The timing of the DAA's poll comes none too soon, a day after Federal Trade Commission chairwoman Edith Ramirez ramped up the agency's call for a universal Do Not Track mechanism like Microsoft's browser, implying that the industry's two-year-old ad choices self-regulatory program was only a partial solution. In Congress, DAA skeptic Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) is also planning on a hearing before the end of the month.

Washington should proceed with caution. Nearly 62 percent polled don't trust the government to regulate how Internet advertising is delivered.

"We hope this study informs the debate," Mastria said. "It's unfortunate that targeted advertising has been conflated with all kinds of privacy fears."