Targeted contextual and behavioral advertising currently dominate much of the digital advertising marketplace. Behavioral advertising uses personal browser data collected by intermediaries to serve ads to users by assigning them into micro categories. In contrast, contextual advertising serves ads to match the marketer’s requirements.
GumGum, a contextual intelligence company, commissioned Harris Poll to survey consumers to better understand their online advertising preferences. Nearly eight in ten (79%) consumers report being more comfortable seeing contextual ads than behavioral. While more than three-quarters of all people are more comfortable with contextual ads, there are some generational differences: 84% of consumers ages 35 to 44 preferred contextual ads, while 76% and 75% of those between the ages of 18 to 34 and 45 to 54, respectively, preferred a contextual experience.
Personalized ads are not beneficial
In contrast, most respondents (66%) report they are uncomfortable with companies tracking their browsing history to show them personalized ads. Further, women are more uncomfortable with behavioral ads than men (70% vs. 61%). Older adults aged 55+ are also more likely than younger adults to say they are uncomfortable with brands tracking their browsing history.
While marketers often overstate the value of personalized ads, consumers are also uncomfortable when brands use their browsing history and habits to serve personalized ads. Personalization often relies on surveillance advertising, which is data-invasive and has consumers concerned.
Similar trends have also been observed in European research. Last year, Global Witness commissioned YouGov to conduct research among 2,000 regular social media users in France and Germany about personalization in online advertising. The findings show that consumers are uneasy about targeted ads — driven by everything from income and religious views to life events such as pregnancy, bereavement, or illness — and do not want to receive any personalized advertising. Further, approximately 38% of the respondents said they are “creeped out,” and 31% said they feel violated.
Behavioral targeting can lead to discrimination
Beyond privacy concerns, selecting specific demographics and audiences to receive certain advertising can be discriminatory. Civil rights groups accused Facebook of violating federal anti-discrimination laws in 2016 because of their targeted advertising practices. At least five lawsuits were filed against the company at that time. A settlement was reached in 2019, and it noted, “Facebook advertisers can no longer target users by age, gender and ZIP code for housing, employment and credit offers.”
Google announced a cookie replacement called FLoC, Federated Learning of Cohorts, in mid-2021. The company planned to shift online advertising tracking from user to group tracking. However, many voiced concerns that users could potentially be identified within cohorts. Google’s newest idea in their Privacy Sandbox is an API called Topics, which links user browsing history to topics for interest-based advertising. Unfortunately, there’s a significant disconnect between Google’s Sandbox initiative and consumers’ sentiment from the user privacy perspective.
Contextual advertising addresses consumers’ privacy concerns, allowing publishers to serve more relevant ads to their customers without tracking their browser history. Interestingly, few marketers transitioned their dollars from behavioral advertising to contextual advertising after Google announced the end of cookies in 2022 and then again when it announced its delay until 2023.
The research clearly shows that consumers are uncomfortable with behavioral and personalized ads. As the digital advertising industry moves forward to make changes and create solutions, transparency is essential, and it is necessary to inform consumers on how their data is collected and used. Digital ads that do not make consumers uncomfortable build brand trust and increase the likelihood of a positive response.