Behavioral Targeting U.S. Hispanics: Another Example of Why Policymakers Must Be Proactive

Here’s an excerpt from a column written by an executive from a leading behavioral targeting company:

Behavioral targeting can help marketers reach across the cultural divide, helping to identify Hispanic online audiences, or any other ethnic group for that matter…Behavioral targeting is used to create Hispanic audience segments first based on users who have visited Spanish-language sites or any sites with Hispanic-relevant content. You can then create sub-segments based on not only ethnicity, culture, or language, but also interests and purchase intent behaviors observed on those or other sites. You can even identify “purchase influencers” among U.S. Hispanic populations, based on browsing and buying behaviors plus geographic location. You may then serve culturally relevant marketing messages to these segments when they travel to any other site online.

You will also find re-targeting useful, once you have begun to build these behavioral segments. As you serve ads to your Hispanic audiences and sub-segments, you can then re-target them across whichever network or sites you choose, with upsell, cross-sell, or discount offers…Behavioral profiles that have been tagged as part of a Hispanic audience or sub-segment can be given a boost by search data including Spanish-language or Hispanic content keywords or search engines that have been set to Spanish.

source:  How to use BT to reach U.S. Hispanics.   Jeff Hirsch.  April 21, 2009.  imediaconnection

The real digital TV transition: Why TV “Advanced Advertising” [aka Project Canoe] Raises Privacy & Consumer Protection Concerns

The cable and telephone industry have Google envy.  These broadband communications giants recognize that online advertising companies such as Google and Yahoo have created an enormous market for themselves through the delivery of online ads.  Comcast, Time Warner, Verizon and others want to use their Bush Administration-given broadband monopoly status to gain a significant share of this market.  Cable giants are also working together to transform television so it can better compete with online, and target viewers with more precision and in-depth ads.  The goal–for cable, phone and online ad companies–is to eventually provide a seamless system that tracks, profiles and targets us across every “screen,” including TV, PC and mobile.

Comcast is heavily investing for such a viewer/user tracking world.  It has plans, according to the trade publication Multichannel News to create a “gigantic database called “TV Warehouse,” able to store a full year of statistics gathered from digital set-tops in more than 16 million households nationwide…TV Warehouse, envisioned as having a massive 500 Terabytes of storage, would then feed up to a database even broader in scope operated by Canoe Ventures, the advanced-advertising venture formed by Comcast and five other large MSOs.  The idea: to give advertisers an enormous set of actual viewing metrics — showing exactly what millions of cable customers watched and when — as opposed to representative samples.”

Not surprisingly, Comcast’s Brian Roberts has said his company should no longer be viewed as merely a provider of television:  “Over the last few years we have successfully transformed Comcast from a cable company into a new products company that utilizes one infrastructure to deliver a growing number of products.”  Advanced Advertising, which is what the cable industry’s technical consortium known as CableLabs calls it, is one of the major products Comcast and others will soon provide.  According to CableLabs, “Advertising is growing in importance for cable operators. CableLabs is currently supporting activity in four areas designed to create new revenue opportunities around advanced advertising technologies. These areas are digital ad insertion, interactive advertising, reporting, and addressability.”   Cable executives are working with advertising companies to “…agree on a valuation metric. What’s a click worth?”

But the core concern with Advanced Advertising is the tracking of viewers, including the use of internal and outside databases for targeting. Comcast Spotlight, for example, offers marketers access to a broad range of databases for more precise targeting. Acxiom offers cable and other providers a host of database segmentation services, including its Personicx VisionScape. “With PersonicX VisionScape, marketers have at your fingertips real-time access to a wealth of information… that can help them understand more about their customers – what type of products they use, their purchasing behaviors, their channel and media preferences.  The PersonicX household-level segmentation system is built with InfoBase-Xâ„¢ data and places almost every U.S. household into one of 70 distinctive segments and 21 life stage groups based on specific consumer behavior and demographic characteristics.”

Cable’s work to create a more powerful viewer data collection and targeting system has been out of public and policymaker view.  Cable engineers have been working  together to perfect the technology that will allow it to merge “content and subscriber metadata for targeting zones (or, in a unicast environment, for targeting individuals) to bring the right ad to the right consumer at the right time.”

The phone and cable companies, knowing that the 1984 Cable Communications Act contains privacy safeguards for interactive TV ads and aware of the current debate on behavioral targeting, claims that such data collection and targeting will be anonymous and could include an “opt-in.”  We don’t believe any cable or phone consumer is being told the extent of the plans underway to track and target them.  For example, Alcatel’s product for IPTV related advanced advertising explains that:
“To capture the full revenue potential of targeted and interactive advertising, IPTV providers need to ensure that the following critical actions are addressed:

  • Capture and measure — The network must be able to collect “opt-in” subscriber information from a broad range of databases, which advertisers will use to reach specific “targeted” markets. This anonymous data includes usage patterns, subscriptions, demographics, location, presence and preferences — including how, when and where advertising messages are delivered, along with the type of device that is used. In addition, accurate measurement capabilities are needed that can verify audience response and track the effectiveness of ad campaigns…
  • Activate and interact — Finally, this data, combined with the right systems and infrastructure must be able to deliver personalized and interactive ads to the right consumer, at the right time.”

Consumers/subscribers should decide whether such an advanced system can target them at all.  Beyond informed consent (and data security), there need to be clear safeguards.  Targeted ads for financial, health, and products aimed to children and adolescents raise consumer protection issues.  I have real concerns about “ethnic” profiling, given how lucrative advertisers realize the Hispanic and African American markets are.  We believe that the cable industry has to engage the public in a serious debate about the scope and goal of its Project Canoe and advanced advertising initiative.  Congress, the FCC, and the FTC must become more proactive to protect our privacy from this new approach.

PS:  This week’s Multichannel News offers insight into the latest developments.  Here’s an excerpt:  “This year, the largest cable operators in the U.S. plan to have upgraded at least 20 million digital set-tops with code to run standardized interactive-TV applications. That will make it possible for viewers to click a button on their remote to, say, ask an advertiser to e-mail them more information…The industry over the last two years has coalesced around a common technical standard, maintained by CableLabs, referred to as Enhanced Binary Interchange Format, or EBIF (pronounced “EE-biff”)…Comcast, for one, claimed it had deployed EBIF user agents on more than 10 million Motorola set-top boxes by the start of 2009. The operator hopes to complete the rollout to its entire Motorola footprint, about 20 million boxes, by midyear…” [Interactive TV Begins to Bloom.  Todd Spangler.  Multichannel News.  March 3, 2009].

Baby Steps for Online Privacy: Why the FTC Self-Regulatory Principles For Online Behavioral Advertising Fails to Protect the Public

Statement of Jeff Chester, Exec. Director, Center for Digital Democracy:

The Federal Trade Commission is supposed to serve as the nation’s leading consumer protection agency.  But for too long it has buried its mandate in the `digital’ sand, as far as ensuring U.S. consumer privacy is protected online.    The commission embraced a narrow intellectual framework as it examined online marketing and data collection for this proceeding.  Since 2001, the Bush FTC has made industry self-regulation for privacy and online marketing the only acceptable approach when considering any policy safeguards (although the Clinton FTC was also inadequate in this regard as well).  Consequently, FTC staff—placed in a sort of intellectual straitjacket—was hampered in their efforts to propose meaningful safeguards.

Advertisers and marketers have developed an array of sophisticated and ever-evolving data collection and profiling applications, honed from the latest developments in such fields as semantics, artificial intelligence, auction theory, social network analysis, data-mining, and statistical modeling.  Unknown to many members of the public, a vast commercial surveillance system is at the core of most search engines, online video channels, videogames, mobile services and social networks.  We are being digitally shadowed across the online medium, our actions monitored and analyzed.

Behavioral targeting (BT), the online marketing technique that analyzes how an individual user acts online so they can be sent more precise marketing messages, is just one tool in the interactive advertisers’ arsenal.  Today, we are witnessing a dramatic growth in the capabilities of marketers to track and assess our activities and communication habits on the Internet.  Social media monitoring, so-called “rich-media” immersive marketing, new forms of viral and virtual advertising and product placement, and a renewed interest (and growing investment in) neuromarketing, all contribute to the panoply of approaches that also includes BT.  Behavioral targeting itself has also grown more complex.  That modest little “cookie” data file on our browsers, which created the potential for behavioral ads, now permits a more diverse set of approaches for delivering targeted advertising.

We don’t believe that the FTC has sufficiently analyzed the current state of interactive marketing and data collection.  Otherwise, it would have been able to articulate a better definition of behavioral targeting that would illustrate why legislative safeguards are now required.  It should have not exempted “First Party” sites from the Principles; users need to know and approve what kinds of data collection for targeting are being done at that specific online location.

The commission should have created specific policies for so-called sensitive data, especially in the financial, health, and children/adolescent area.  By urging a conversation between industry and consumer groups to “develop more specific standards,” the commission has effectively and needlessly delayed the enactment of meaningful safeguards.

On the positive side, the FTC has finally recognized that given today’s contemporary marketing practices, the distinction between so-called personally identifiable information (PII) and non-PII is no longer relevant.  The commission is finally catching up with the work of the Article 29 Working Party in the EU (the organization of privacy commissioners from member states), which has made significant advances in this area.

We acknowledge that many on the FTC staff worked diligently to develop these principles.  We personally thank them for their commitment to the public interest.  Both Commissioners Leibowitz and Harbour played especially critical roles by supporting a serious examination of these issues.  We urge everyone to review their separate statements issued today.  Today’s release of the privacy principles continues the conversation.  But meaningful action is required.  We cannot leave the American public—now pressed by all manner of financial and other pressures—to remain vulnerable to the data collection and targeting lures of interactive marketing.

FTC’s Behavioral Ad Principles–the last act of the Bush Administration? Why is the Obama White House Allowing the FTC To Remain Under the Leadership Appointed by Pres. Bush?

In a few hours, approximately between 10-11 am eastern, the FTC is expected to release its final “Online Behavioral Advertising Principles.” Originally released for comment in December 2007, the principles are a sort of Valentine’s Day present to the online ad industry from the (supposedly departed) Bush Administration.  From what we know, the FTC principles support self-regulation.  Online marketers will be told they should behave better–and here are suggestions.  It’s like a teacher telling a misbehaving student–‘behave better, dear,’ or else we will have to tell your parent (in this case, the guardian being potential congressional action).

My CDD urged Commissioners Harbour and Leibowitz to issue separate statements on the principles, and call for tougher requirements—especially in the area of so-called sensitive information.  This would include data connected to our financial and health related online activities (think mortgage and loan applications or queries for prescription drugs).  CDD and a coalition of groups also formally asked the commission to impose serious privacy safeguards for both children and adolescents.

But these principles were crafted within the narrow confines of the Bush Administration philosophy prevailing at the FTC.  Only self-regulation is permitted.  Consequently, such an approach likely means these rules leave the online data collection, profiling and targeted marketing system which comprise behavioral marketing off the privacy protection hook.

But one question looms at the moment.  Why has the new Obama administration allowed the FTC to remain under the leadership of Bush-appointee William E. Kovacic? The principles being issued today, in fact, reflect the “old” FTC, not one run under the philosophy of President Obama.  Why is the Obama White House failing to ensure a change of leadership at the FTC?  The agency is responsible for overseeing a huge portion of the economy, including critical financial issues.  It’s also supposed to be the leading agency on consumer protection issues.   The Obama White House should have–by now-found someone who would led the FTC, so it can better protect the public.

The principles being released today were only made possible because of the Bush FTC give-away to Google, when it approved its takeover of online ad giant DoubleClick.  CDD, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), and USPIRG fought the merger, including on privacy grounds.  FTC Commissioner Pamela Harbour played a key role forcing the agency (then run by Chairwoman Majoris, whose husband’s law firm represented DoubleClick) to address the privacy concerns. As a consequence of the political pressure from its failure to seriously examine the consumer privacy issues of the Google deal, the FTC staff were told to develop these principles.

The next chair of the FTC needs to take privacy and online consumer protection issues seriously.  The agency does need more resources, but also a new spirit.  If the FTC had been on the job, and was examining how lending institutions were recklessly promoting loans and mortgages, maybe today’s mess wouldn’t be as tragic as it is.  More to come after the commission releases the principles.

Mobile Privacy & Marketing Watch: Protecting Hispanics

One of the areas my group and USPIRG asked the Federal Trade Commission to address in our complaint filed this week was mobile marketing to Hispanic-Americans.  An entire marketing infrastructure has evolved to target this important group; many questions remain about what they are being offered and how the mobile marketing has been structured. As Media Post explained yesterday in an article on the Hispanic mobile market: “…because they lag behind the general population for Internet access, many will first go online via their cell phones. In fact, they significantly over-index when consuming mobile content. According to comScore m:metrics, 71% of Hispanics consume content on cell phones compared to the market average of 48%. In addition, Hispanics tend to notice and respond well to ads on cell phones. Nielsen’s recent “Mobile Advertising Report” highlighted that Hispanic data users are more likely to recall seeing ads on mobile phones (41% compared with 30% of non-Hispanics) and more likely to have responded (22% vs. 13%).”

One mobile marketing company that is now also focused on the Hispanic market promises potential advertisers that it “utilizes advanced profiling capabilities that are inherent to the platform’s automated learning engine – meaning that the platform learns from previous customer interactions to automatically and organically build up profiles of users and their individual preferences. Each subsequent campaign is then automatically optimized (no human interaction is required!) in order to deliver the most personalized message possible that is based 100% on the user’s profile.”

We are not opposed to mobile marketing.  But systems of data collection, profiling, and targeting must be transparent, disclosed, and controllable (a real opt-in) by the users.