The Interactive Ad Bureau: Its Political Posture is a Liability for the Advertising Industry

On December 14, the head of the U.S. Interactive Advertising Bureau–Randall Rothenberg–wrote a commentary for the Wall Street Journal (“Facebook’s Flop” sub. required) that will be used by graduate students someday as an example of what shouldn’t be done to help an industry address a political crisis. Using old cliches, scare tactics, name-calling, the piece reflects a real failure on the part of the IAB to address an important policy issue that affects everyone–including families. It also shows an inability to recognize concerns about online privacy in an historic context. Such an approach may be useful for rallying some of the old guard. But more sophisticated advertisers and marketers will recognize that the online ad industry doesn’t benefit from embracing such an approach.

So instead of saying that there has long been a concern about online privacy, including for children, we are called “anti-business groups.” Instead of admitting that advertisers and marketers are shaping the new media system so it can better track and target us all, the IAB head claims “the consumer is in control.” Instead of admitting that it was the request made by my group and others for the FTC and the European Commission to investigate Facebook’s “Beacon” system, it says that it just took Moveon to force a (partial) retreat (anyone who has political savvy recognizes it was the combination of Moveon’s organizing, the raising of public policy concerns, and advertiser skittishness that led to the Facebook change). The commentary claims we are calling for “the banning of behaviorally-targeted ads.” But almost everyone else recognizes that we have called for meaningful privacy safeguards for behavioral and interactive marketing practices that would protect consumers.

Finally, the oldest canard in the business is used, claiming that without advertising all the “free” content online would disappear. “Advertisers are paying for it,” it is said. Nothing about how consumers ultimately pay for all this–including now their loss of data, privacy and autonomy.

Anyone with insight into where we are historically with interactive media and marketing should recognize that the privacy and marketing related issues must be honestly dealt with. Old style lobbying may show some muscle, but will backfire. Here’s hoping 2008 will bring the gift of better reflection at the IAB–to its officers, board members, and members.

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