Darn it, the NSA broke the web’s shiny new advertising model

NSA Operations centre

NSA Operations centre

In the throes of the Publicis Omnicom merger, speculation is rife that the advertising world is due for a sea change, with more big players likely to follow Lévy and Wren into new competitive waters by pooling the key resource of the century: not mindshare or media buying power, but data.

There is certainly no shortage of the stuff to go around. According to Gartner, there is, in fact, more data than there are smart people who know how to manipulate it and turn it into value.

In the advertising industry, the tools and methodologies for crunching data from different sources are still in the early stages of developmentMinority Report is a ways away. But when it comes to digital, where data-driven advertising is currently most mature, the biggest issue is not that we need more insight into our market’s behaviour, but how very much our market is not into that idea at all.

In a recent article, I looked at the difference between how old-fashioned passive consumers and this new breed — the user — react to having their attention manhandled by advertisers. One thing we’ve learned the hard way about the rules of engagement on the internet is that advertising is only tolerated if it is unobtrusive. Silent, to the point, and with no dimension in time.

Unfortunately for anyone in marketing, knowing what users are in the market for is increasingly perceived as a whole new kind of intrusion. In the wake of ‘Snoop-gate’*, even those who were comfortable with, or ignorant of, how their data was being tracked, now have very firm opinions on the matter. They also have some very smart developers on their side. For those who don’t want advertisers collecting their browsing data, Adblock is just the ground level…

  • Panopticlick will tell you how unique your browser’s fingerprint is, and how much can consequently be learned about you.
  • Collusion from Mozilla creates a real-time visualisation of which entities are tracking you online.
  • Breadcrumbs creates a digital doppelganger that performs bogus browsing on your behalf to stymie data-trackers. Last year, Apple filed a patent for software that fulfils a similar function.
  • One imaginative student took the same idea a step further, with an app that “gamifies” the profile-faking process by earning you points for each random cookie you collect.
  • Multi-millionaire tech entrepreneur Gabriel Weinberg stepped into the fray with DuckDuckGo, a non-tracking search engine that frees you of the “filter bubble” effect, as well as ensuring that your data doesn’t end up in the knowledge base of Google or any other fine institution.

All this playing hard-to-get on the part of users may seem counter-intuitive. After all, who wouldn’t want more relevant ads?

As it turns out, a lot of people don’t. (It is, admittedly, getting a little creepy. Forget the polite offers to freeze your eggs that get served to you the moment you send out those Gmail invitations to your 30th birthday party. Google Glass, it is hoped, will give us new metrics based on whether your pupils dilate when you look at billboards.)

The stakeholders behind the behavioural targeting model have spent years plugging the argument that data-tracking, to the end of serving more relevant ads, is a fair trade for keeping services like Google and Facebook free. They have also been at pains to convince users that they are actually, in some significant sense, still anonymous.

But with recent and ongoing revelations, all that hard-earned trust was breached. We are still learning how Google, Facebook, Yahoo, AOL and the others are implicated in this mess. Rebut as they may, they will have a tough time correcting the impression that they have been selling their users out. And advertisers will have a similarly tough time convincing users — and lawmakers — that they should not be tarred with the same brush.

Data-driven advertising won’t go away. But with renewed calls for better data privacy legislation in America and the EU, enforcing transparency and facilitating opt-out for those who don’t wish to be tracked, this round of the cold war looks set to be won by the users.

No matter how much data they have at their disposal, then, or how good they get at extracting insights from it, the mega-firms of the future may find their hands tied. Should you, the user, deem it preferable to be served ads offering you discount sporting goods and solutions for male pattern baldness when all you’re really after is a good pair of jeggings, you will have your wish. We will do our 120 words of hard-sell with our hat in our hand, and should those pupils not dilate, we will be on our way.

*This refers to the PRISM scandal. To our knowledge, Snoop Lion aka Snoop Dogg has not adopted this moniker as his new identity. Yet.



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