Honesty the best policy with behavioural ads

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Consumers have little understanding of how online behavioural advertising is regulated, but there is evidence to show that making them more familiar with the topic can only be beneficial.

Marketing Week has been given exclusive access to a new report by ComRes, commissioned by the Advertising Association’s independent think tank Credos, which suggests that the marketing industry needs to address consumers on the topic.

Among the other areas covered by the wide ranging survey of 2,000 UK adults are general public trust in advertising and their attitudes to publicly funded marketing, but special attention is also reserved for the restrictions on targeting web ads to individual consumers based on their browsing habits. On a 4-point scale, respondents’ concern about behavioural advertising averages at 2.85 (where 3 represents “fairly concerned”).

Consumers are more worried about the level of regulation applied to this kind of marketing technique than about alcohol, food, or general online advertising. Concern about advertising to children ranks highest, averaging at 2.92.

The results might perturb marketers who are already unsure how to go about complying with the EU’s new privacy directive, which requires that internet users be asked for permission to place cookies on their browsers tracking their web usage. But there are encouraging signs that people become less worried the more they know.

Survey respondents were given three pieces of information about behavioural advertising – that no personal data is collected or stored, that browser settings can be used to stop behavioural advertising being served, and that laws exist to protect people’s details online.

In each case, nearly half say the knowledge makes them less concerned about the dangers of the practice, compared with a maximum of 17% who become more worried as a consequence.

Couple this with the low level of awareness of the regulations, and this should indicate that more needs to be done to provide consumers with the facts. Familiarity with behavioural advertising rules averages at 2.06, on a scale where 2 means “unfamiliar”. That is the second-worst figure of the five types of advertising mentioned in the question.

It is going to take the online ad industry itself time to get to grips with the regulations, given the EU rule change on 26 May. But the research demonstrates that any marketers tempted to obfuscate or keep consumers in the dark to avoid awkward questions would be well advised to think again.

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