At What Price Safety? At What Price Targeted Advertising?

spanfeller-sell-siderThe Sell-Sider” is a column written by the sell side of the digital media community.

Today’s column is written by Jim Spanfeller, CEO of Spanfeller Media Group, a new-age media company.

As the news about the U.S. government’s Prism program attracts full-blown global attention, raising questions about our privacy and our safety, I think it’s a good time to re-examine the ongoing debate around third-party tracking cookies and their value to end users.

I’ve long said that the answer to the online advertiser tracking debate (like many other things in ad tech) hinges on transparency. The population is generally smart enough to decide what is appropriate and what is not. When faced with clear choices, they will almost always let you know what they really want and what they think is right.

In the case of PRISM, of course, transparency is a far more complex issue. The government would have us believe that it needs to keep these programs secret so that our adversaries cannot take countermeasures to overcome these “safeguards.”

That argument, which is likely to be the subject of awfully interesting debate for quite some time, obviously doesn’t apply to advertiser tracking. The last time I checked, the choice of serving me a peanut butter ad or an automotive ad had very little to do with keeping my community, city or country safe from an imminent life-threatening attack.

And yet, in some ways, the advertising industry acts like the government has with PRISM, choosing secrecy over transparency when collecting consumer information.

I think the vast majority of marketers, advertising agencies, and publishers have long had a sense of which practices are generally known and acceptable, and which are unknown and perhaps unacceptable. It comes down to common sense. But we’ve chosen to not ask questions because we’re afraid of what the answers might be. And at times, we have taken this fear to absurd levels.

Several months ago, when Microsoft offered “Do Not Track” as a default setting in its new version of Internet Explorer, we as an industry responded by saying that this did not represent choice and, as such, we were going to ignore all “Do Not Track” signals. It’s hard to reconcile the action with the argument; turning off the setting by default certainly doesn’t offer consumers any more or less choice than having the “Do Not Track” default setting buried in the user interface and set by default in the off position. Dealing with Microsoft’s decision by simply ignoring it was the very height of hubris. These types of policies can only work for a short period of time.

Case in point: As a direct result of the industry’s stance on DNT, the Hill renewed its efforts to introduce legislation around web tracking. If the implications weren’t so serious, we could make all sorts of comical references here to what is happening on the much more important scale with PRISM.

God forbid we, as an industry, find ourselves in the same place that the government does now. No matter what the answers are, not asking the questions in the first place – and not being completely transparent – could ultimately yield results exponentially worse than whatever small gains we think we get by keeping folks in the dark.  What’s more, we would have no ground to stand on when asked why we didn’t ask the questions in the first place. Consumer behavior tracking is hardly a matter of national security. That said, it very well could matter greatly to a percentage of people in our society on a personal basis.

Maybe end users will prove to be just fine with what is currently happening behind the scenes. The point is that we need to ask them. And given what is going on in the greater landscape, with all of the potential fallout around privacy from PRISM, I think we should do this as soon as possible.

Follow Jim Spanfeller (@JimSpanfeller) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

Enjoying this content?

Sign up to be an AdExchanger Member today and get unlimited access to articles like this, plus proprietary data and research, conference discounts, on-demand access to event content, and more!

Join Today!


  1. Simon Tschinkel

    Agreed. Especially like your sentence “The population is generally smart enough to decide what is appropriate and what is not. When faced with clear choices, they will almost always let you know what they really want and what they think is right.”

    Not only do you (correctly) have faith in the decision making capabilities of most people, but you nail what is also a very Libertarian POV.

  2. Ramsey McGrory

    I’m late to this post, but I’m not sure what Jim is advocating here….other than saying, ‘go ahead and block 3rd party cookies and allow DNT.’

    -If the argument is that we’re just not being transparent enough, I’d like to understand what defines sufficiently transparent. The IAB, DAA and others have served billions of ads educating consumers.

    -Users understand how to clear cookies and often do when they don’t want activity to be tracked. On some sites, anywhere from 10-80% of activity is being cleared.

    -Cookies are anonymous, generally standardized technology and the alternatives may end up being more invasive.

    -Many pixels or cookies that a user sees are not directly collecting data for OBA. Transparency and context is needed here without fear mongering.

    –Explain a post DNT and no third party cookie world. Is someone clicking a log in button with a connected EULA better informed than someone who understands the implicit ‘content for targeted ads’ value exchange? Could be. How does a smaller site who doesn’t have Jim’s resources generate revenue?

    Jim’s company is a vertical content leader, and therefore, they will always drive most of their revenue from contextual based advertising. Jim freely admits it’s in their interest for DNT and 3rd party cookie blocking to happen. But let’s put that aside for the moment.

    The genie is out of the bottle – advertisers and publishers alike have embraced leveraging permissable data and technology to deliver relevant content and advertising efficiently. They also need to generate revenue to continue to invest in new content and new tech. Short of them doing it themselves, 3rd party tech/data companies are the partners that enable this opportunity and growth.

    As this happens, users have the ultimate control and most all understand the implicit value exchange. Changing it for everyone to a different default is a very aggressive remedy for this population who is already deciding what’s appropriate and not with their mouses.

    I hope I’m still invited the Spanfeller Media Group holiday party. The is a great site and i visit it often….knowing that I am receiving ads. BTW, I saw 18 cookies being dropped on my visit this a.m.