The Online Ad Industry Has No Idea How To Talk About Itself

The Online Ad Industry Has No Idea How To Talk About Itself

Late last week, the Federal Trade Commission hosted a five-hour-long virtual public forum on “commercial surveillance” and data security.

The forum was part of a broad and ongoing fact-finding exercise as the FTC explores the possibility of creating its own set of rules to protect data security and consumer privacy.

After kicking off with a couple of panel discussions featuring a hodgepodge of industry representatives and privacy advocates, the event ended with members of the public having an opportunity to share brief remarks over video or audio.

Some members of the public were actually members of the public. Concerned citizens or technologists speaking in a personal capacity and not on behalf of their company. But many of those who weighed in were advertising industry lobbyists.

I tuned into the entire forum, all five-plus hours of it (you’re welcome?), and this is my main takeaway: The online advertising industry needs to find a new way to talk about itself.

Because well-worn turns of phrase – like “tailored advertising powers the market for free and low-cost-content” (Network Advertising Initiative) and “concerns about behavioral advertising can obscure the pro-consumer and pro-ecosystem effects created by this highly evolved method of consumer outreach” (Computer & Communications Industry Association) – are not compelling to consumers, lawmakers or to this FTC.

AdExchanger published a column in March with the headline: “Surveillance Advertising: How Did The Advertising Industry Allow This Label?” The author, Gary Kibel, a partner with the law firm Davis+Gilbert, noted how ironic it is that the advertising industry – an industry full of people whose entire job is to tell and sell stories – has “allowed” the term “surveillance advertising” to gain a foothold, including among lawmakers and regulators.

And it’s safe to say the moniker is here to stay. Between stale arguments in support of targeted online advertising, the word “surveillance” (with a couple of “surveil”s and “surveilled”s thrown in) was used by participants during the FTC’s forum more than 125 times. It’s not surprising, considering the commission’s documentation about the FTC’s proposed rulemaking. But it is evidence that, in the minds of many, the word “surveillance” has become nearly synonymous with “data-driven.” The question is whether there’s anything the ad industry can do at this point to change its rep. It’s easy for me to point out the industry’s image problem, but a lot harder to come up with solutions – because it can’t just be about talk. Consumers feel uncomfortable with tracking, in general, and ad tracking, specifically, for a reason. And explaining the economic benefits of online advertising – the good, old value exchange – probably isn’t enough. So, I don’t have answers. But I do know one thing: You can’t change your narrative just by changing the way you talk about yourself. Take this ad from Altria Group, which is what tobacco giant Philip Morris rebranded to in 2003. Against a backdrop of stock images, like a boat cutting across a dark blue ocean and an aerial view of a mountain range (for some reason), a voice-over says: “Altria is moving in a new direction, from our legacy to leading the way forward, moving from smoking to potentially less harmful choices … and from being known as a tobacco company to being recognized as a tobacco harm reduction company. Moving beyond smoking. Altria.”

Let’s give it a try: Online advertising is moving in a new direction, from our legacy to leading the way forward, moving from behavioral advertising to potentially less harmful choices … and from being known as an industry that mercilessly tracks consumers to …

Yeah, I don’t think that’s going to work.

“Data-Driven Thinking” is written by members of the media community and contains fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media.This column ispart of a series of perspectives from AdExchanger’s editorial team.

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