The commercial advertising world has been engaged in sophisticated behavioral targeting efforts for a while now, but many campaigns are just starting to use and test the tactics. The past two election cycles have ushered in a new era of Internet-savvy political campaigns and some newer digital consultancies are cashing in on online behavioral targeting techniques. Those same firms are now bracing for regulations that could blunt the recent online evolution.
Broad privacy legislation currently pending in both chambers of Congress could imperil the effectiveness of targeted ads that many small and large campaigns are now employing nationwide.
The Chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation—Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.)—is the lead sponsor of one of the signature Do Not Track efforts in the upper chamber. Rockefeller’s bill, the “Do Not Track Online Act of 2011” aims to give consumers the ability to opt-out of having their Web history obtained by behavioral marketing firms that sell the information for targeting purposes. The bill tasks the Federal Trade Commission with setting up guidelines for the opt-out mechanism.
Last year, the FTC released its own proposal for a rigorous Do Not Track program, the details of which don’t sit well with online marketers. The commission recommends the placement of a “persistent setting,” much like a cookie, on a browser to inform marketers of consumer preferences when it comes to tracking.
For Rockefeller, it’s about protecting the privacy of users who currently have their data mined and stored even when they’re unaware of it. From a policy standpoint, he contends that it’s easier to let people opt-out of being tracked then it is to set up an industry wide standard for tracking.
“The way to not have to worry about [how personal data is being used] is to not allow the collection of it in the first place if that’s what the consumer wants,” says Rockefeller.
The industry answer comes in the form of the Digital Advertising Alliance—the industry’s self-regulatory program for online behavioral advertising. It’s a mechanism you’ve likely already seen on online ads. Users can click a blue icon that appears on the top of the online ad and be directed to a targeting opt-out. And for those who want to preemptively opt out of ad targeting, you can set preferences on the group’s website: www.aboutads.info.
“There are no loopholes in this,” says Zaneis. “Anytime data is being collected or used, you’re given notice.” The group boasts participation from the overwhelming majority of online ad networks and digital media buyers.
“You can never get to 100 percent cooperation,” Zaneis says. “But we’re approaching that with our program.”
The effort isn’t enough for the FTC, though. It wants a more comprehensive opt-out. But if Internet users can opt-out on a large scale, it could be a real blow to one of the fastest growing sectors of the online campaign industry.
By compiling anonymous portraits of voters, campaigns are able to make personal and relevant appeals to potential supporters. It’s in a user’s interest, marketers argue, to allow firms to store some of their browsing history and other information in order to connect them with meaningful advertising.
“If the candidate is the product, then you’re giving the viewing public— the voting public in this particular case—better exposure to the message of a candidate,” says Steve Ellis, a co-director of i360. His firm’s website boasts of having an “updated database of over 185+ million active voters and 211+ million U.S. consumers.”
“If there’s a candidate out there that people are attracted to, they’re going to want the opportunity to easily interact with the campaign—be it a donation, be it a sign up for volunteerism, whatever the case may be,” Ellis argues.
Currently, observers say it’s the Obama campaign that has the most to lose if some proposed Do Not Track legislation ends up making its way through Congress without an opt-out for the campaign world. Earlier this spring, the campaign rolled out a new juggernaut for the 2012 contest. The campaign’s “Are You In” application provides access to the Facebook pages of supporters, including information on hobbies, where they live and what networks they’re a part of.
The app is intended to give the campaign a new level of intimacy with its supporters—a level of intimacy that allows the campaign to shower voters with very targeted online ads. The online targeting practices digital strategists are now deploying for campaigns aren’t the exclusive domain of well-funded, high profile candidates, though. Looking down the ballot, there are plenty of applications for candidates in less attention-grabbing races even if it’s just using online ads to drive the right voters to their websites.
In this way, argues San Francisco-based Democratic consultant David Latterman, the ability to track and target helps level an often lopsided playing field.
“I would argue this could hurt the little guy because online advertising isn’t that expensive and it’s a conduit that smaller candidates can use,” says Latterman, who’s also the associate director of the McCarthy Center at the University of San Francisco. Latterman says he gets that consumers are clamoring to have more of their data shielded from advertisers, but he thinks privacy legislation would take “away one of the affordable conduits for marketing for some of the smaller candidates.”