WPES10 in real-time: People’s attitudes to on-line behavioural advertising

4 October 2010

Americans. Attitudes About Internet Behavioral Advertising Practices
Aleecia M. Mcdonald and Lorrie Faith Cranor (Carnegie Mellon University)

This is a very interesting paper on people’s attitudes to behavioural advertising. Researchers used a mix of a small-scale (14 people) study and a larger (100s of people) statistical study. A few findings are remarkable:

  • First, they see that users apply their intuition of off-line ads to the experience of on-line ads — many see on-line ads as a push mechanism and do not realise that data about themselves are collected. They seem to not object in general to the idea of advertising, and consider it as a fact of life, and even see it as ‘ok’ to support services.
  • The landscape of attitudes to behavioural advertising is fascinating. When faced with a description of what behavioural advertising collects, as a hypothetical scenario, and how it functions, a large percentage of users said this is not possible, and some of them even claimed it would be illegal. When it comes to attitudes towards receiving ‘better’ ads only 18% of them liked the idea for web-based services, and 4% for email based services (like hotmail & gmail). In general the authors found that a lot of extremely common practices cause “surprise”.
  • The researchers also looked at the formulation of the text of the NAI site, that offers an opt out from behavioural advertising. They find that what the system does is unclear, even after reading the page where the operation is described.

In general people prefer random ads rather than personal ads, with the exception of contextual ads (like books on on-line book stores). There is still a lot of ignorance about how technical systems work, and education when it comes to privacy and the ability to self-help themselves to protect privacy is clearly not working.

This research is pointing in the direction that the presumed tolerance of users to privacy invasion is due to ignorance of common practices. Once those practices are revealed it produces surprise, and even feeling of betrayal that will not be beneficial to any company and customer confidence.

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