National Survey: Most Americans Object to Targeted Ads

Last Updated Sep 30, 2009 4:36 PM EDT

It may be a speed bump or something considerably more serious for online media's dominant business model, but a national survey released today indicates that anywhere from two-thirds up to three-quarters (or more) of Americans object to online tracking by advertisers.

The survey represents a major wake-up call for a media industry already reeling from a prolonged advertising recession.

According to the study conducted by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California, Berkeley, 66 percent flatly object to targeted ads. But the numbers got worse when respondents were told how their online behavior was being tracked in order to serve those ads.

Thus, 73 percent objected to such ads if they involved ebing tracked on the site serving the ad; 84 percent objected to the ads if it meant they were being tracked via other web sites; and 86 percent said it was objectionable if they were being tracked offline.

The professors conducting the survey told The New York Times that they believe this is the first independent survey of tailored advertising that is nationally representative of the U.S. population. As such, it seems likely to have an impact on Capitol Hill, where legislators have started indicating an interest in investigating the online advertising industry's user-tracking methods from a privacy perspective.

The Federal Trade Commission also is reportedly looking into this issue.

The authors of the national survey, which is titled, "Contrary to What Marketers Say, Americans Reject Tailored Advertising, and Three Activities that Enable It," explain the goal of their research as follows:

"While privacy advocates have lambasted behavioral targeting for tracking and labeling people in
ways they do not know or understand, marketers have defended the practice by insisting it gives
Americans what they want: Advertisements and other forms of content that are as relevant to their
lives as possible. We conducted this survey to determine which view Americans hold. In high percentages, they stand on the side of privacy advocates."

The data collected by the researchers includes somewhat surprising evidence that a majority of younger Americans also object to targeted ads and tracking -- 55 percent of the 18-24 demographic to be precise. Even more surprising was the the degree to which young people objected to getting such ads as a result of being tracked on other websites than the one where the ads appear (86 percent), or their behavior offline (90 percent).

It appears that even in an age of always-on social media and ubiquitous tools of self-revelation, a large majority of Americans of all ages still expect their privacy to be respected and preserved. Online advertisers and media companies will almost certainly need to adopt more transparent communication strategies and stronger online privacy policies as a result of this new data.

For a more extended discussion of this survey and its implications, please read the post by my Bnet colleague Diane Mermigas.

  • David Weir

    David Weir is a veteran journalist who has worked at Rolling Stone, California, Mother Jones, Business 2.0, SunDance, the Stanford Social Innovation Review, MyWire, 7x7, and the Center for Investigative Reporting, which he cofounded in 1977. He’s also been a content executive at KQED, Wired Digital, Salon.com, and Excite@Home. David has published hundreds of articles and three books,including "Raising Hell: How the Center for Investigative Reporting Gets Its Story," and has been teaching journalism for more than 20 years at U.C. Berkeley, San Francisco State University, and Stanford.