Behavioural ad choices still opaque for consumers

The Advertising Standards Authority has warned that the behavioural advertising industry is failing to give consumers transparency about their ability to opt out. The process must be made less convoluted if the market wants controls to stay as loose as they currently are.

Michael

The ASA’s half-year report into behavioural ads, which it began regulating in February, doesn’t go as far as to single out any specific advertising company, and the body was unable to uphold any individual complaints because of a lack of information provided. But the report does say that from its monitoring of the industry, the ASA believes 77 per cent of companies signed up to self-regulation could potentially be found in breach of transparency rules.

The ASA’s main gripe was about the simplest possible measure ad companies could take: it says they are putting the information notices about what they do too far down their home pages and in too-small type. This seems foolish, since few consumers are likely to visit an ad network’s own website anyway, and there’s therefore little to lose by displaying the opt-out functions prominently there.

But you have to read between the lines to work out the more fundamental problems with regulating behavioural advertising. The ASA says it received just 77 complaints between February and June, most of which came from people with little technical knowledge of the area and most of which related to an inability to opt out. Reading the ASA’s account of its correspondence with the complainants conjures in the imagination some quite painful scenes, as it attempts to walk people through the process.

The fact that the ASA had time to do so, given the small number of complaints, might encourage some, but in reality it’s more likely to be the result of consumers’ low awareness of the rules. An online marketing campaign for the cross-industry AdChoices initiative, which provides a single source of information and a single destination at which to opt out, ran for around two months from June – after the period covered in the ASA’s report – but more activity will be needed if consumers are to understand their rights.

What’s more, the fact that the ASA was unable to gain enough information to pursue complaints against any individual ad or company demonstrates the difficulty it is going to have taking any action that will be effective at enforcing the rules. The one positive sign is that it is at least trying, unlike most of the rest of Europe.

The ASA seems always to do its level best when handed a new task. But this is an incredibly complex and fast-moving area and the volume of online behavioural ads means no regulator could ever do more than scratch the surface.

Having tested the process of opting out of behavioural ads myself, I can’t say that it’s abundantly clear how to go about it. And the need to allow third-party cookies so that ad companies can set third-party cookies reminding them not to set any more third-party cookies is bound to baffle even the majority of technically literate people.

If the behavioural advertising industry is to convince EU legislators it is offering real choice to consumers, it is going to have to make things much simpler.

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