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The Ethics of Behavioral Targeting

The Ethics of Behavioral Targeting Doug Wintz

Someday soon you will look back on the ad you just trafficked to a web page and think how primitive it all was. In hindsight, it will seem limited in scope and technology, and for the most part highly impersonal.

Yes, we have targeting capabilities through cookie-based technology and ads are becoming more interactive, more creative and "richer." But really, what’s unique about an ad in a pre-designated slot on a page? Or a strictly formatted pre- and post-roll commercial surrounding a video? Or banner ad space filled with cost-per-click ads?

Someday, this will be looked upon as "so 2007."

But never fear, the outlook is bright and fascinating. Your career is just beginning. There are several indicators both real and imagined that point to the future of continued evolution in our business. It will also raise some questions about intrusion and just how far we will go to deliver commercial messages. In fact, recent lawsuits surrounding adware are a clear indication that as we push media boundaries, we’ll find ourselves having to make personal judgments about how much is enough.

Starting in January, drivers of Mini Coopers in several cities received personalized messages flashed to them on outdoor billboards, triggered by radio frequency identification devices (RFID) emanating from their key fobs. Moreover, this opt-in program tailors the messages to the personal information submitted by Mini owners. So as you drive down the freeway, the Mini billboard may wish you "Happy Birthday, Doug" or ask if you’re playing tennis again this weekend.

I guarantee you that upselling other services (automotive, financial, recreational or otherwise) that are keyed to these personal preferences is not very far around the corner. Your efforts in ad operations may soon exceed the limited visibility afforded by a web page on a computer. In fact, you may soon be engaging in the commercial equivalent of "tagging" a subway car with graffiti, with your keystrokes visible to thousands of drivers from the 405 Freeway to the Long Island Expressway.

Seeing into the future
One of the visionaries who saw this type of media technology coming was the author Philip K. Dick. If you don’t know his work, think of the movies "Blade Runner," "Total Recall," "A Scanner Darkly" and "Minority Report."

All were based on his short stories and novels. He’s probably the most posthumously successful author of our time, and his stories were a blend of science fiction and social commentary, marked with the crude patina of commercialization.

In the movie "Minority Report," as the protagonist strides through a busy public thoroughfare beams of light read the personal signature from his retina and deliver a series of targeted commercial messages.

"Mr. Anderton, wouldn’t you like a cold Guiness now?' "Mr. Anderton, as an American Express card holder since 2037…."

While in fact this was not a scene directly derived from Dick's short story of the same name, it does capture an underlying theme in much of his work: the intrusive nature of media. This is also the subject of his short story "Sales Pitch," in which driving commuters are bombarded by pushed ads -- "All the news while it’s news….have a retinal vidscreen installed in your least-used eye. Keep in touch with the world; don’t wait for out-of-date hourly summaries.” And so on.

In the world of the near future, technology is put to work in the employ of commercial enterprise. As it is now, so shall it be in the future. 

Again, someone needs to create and manage these imagined applications and it falls into the category of ad operations. You and your successors will be engaged in activities that go far beyond the 728 x 90. But as we get deeper into the minds and bodies of consumers, we may begin asking ourselves some serious questions. When does our fascination with media technology end up contributing to something more than we are comfortable with?

Complicit delivery
We can reconcile the ethics of behavioral targeting by referring to its use of anonymous and not personally identifiable information, but will the lines be so clear in the future? And if not, will we be comfortable with being complicit in the delivery of these commercial messages? Or will we be so desensitized at that point that we won't ever care?

Finally, we can turn to "Next," the most recent novel by Michael Crichton, in which he imagines the implications of the explosive growth in genetic engineering as a catalyst for everything from transgenic animals (combine the DNA of man and chimp) to legal debates on the property rights of your own personal genes.

Crichton was smart enough to think beyond H.G. Wells' "Island of Dr. Moreau" and intertwine his story with subplots regarding commercial implications. Most chilling was the genetic re-engineering of living organisms to carry corporate and commercial branding by altering skin pigmentation that flashes and glows like a virtual Times Square billboard.

I am personally interested in our business of media operations because it is currently a unique mixture of technology and human process. That may just be a way to subconsciously rationalize the fact that after all, we’re putting ads on pages.

Hey, it works for me, keeps me interested and challenged. But in the future, perhaps it won’t be so clear cut. We may find ourselves being challenged in ways that are far different than we imagined, asking ourselves about the role we play in literally creating the cultural landscape of our future. 

Doug Wintz is the founder and principal of DMW MediaWorks. .

  Doug Wintz is Founder and Principal of DMW MediaWorks, a consultancy specializing in digital ad operations and technology.  Since 2004, DMW MediaWorks has helped emerging companies set up their ad operations departments and...

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