When Target realized its baby-products ads were getting a negative response, it didn't pull the ads; instead, it elected to hide them among unrelated and less-targeted ads when showing them to pregnant women. Rather than asking female customers if they were interested in special offers for baby products, the company chose to infer the answer in secret.
And that lack of transparency may be the single biggest objection to consumer tracking and targeting today. Advertisers are spending millions to combine, transmit, and analyze personal data to help them infer things about consumers that they would not ask directly. Their practices with regard to personal data remain hidden, and they're acceptable only because people don't know about them.
Such tracking and targeting also feels arrogant. Consumers may not mind being marketed to, but they don't want to be treated as if they were faceless numbers to be manipulated by uncaring marketers. Even the term "targeting" betrays a not-so-friendly attitude toward consumers.
Ironically, advertisers might be far more successful if they pulled back the curtain and included consumers in the process. It's well known that the personal data in the databases of marketers and advertisers is far from completely accurate.
Maybe, as several people I talked to for this story pointed out, the best way to collect accurate data about consumers is to just ask them. And if an advertiser is hesitant to ask for a certain piece of personal data, the advertiser shouldn't infer it.
"What our organization is trying to work out is whether or not there's a way to [collect personal data] where the user knows what's happening and companies [get] their data not by stalking [users] but by asking them," says the Personal Data Ecosystem Consortium's Hamlin.
It might sound something like this, Hamlin says: "You tell us your income and your age and some of your interests, and we promise to use this information to present you with relevant content, [such as] an ad that matches your interests."
Internet Needs to Grow Up
Still, many people--on both the privacy and advertising sides of the fence--believe there is room both for consumer privacy and for Web advertisements and content targeting using personal data. But the veil of secrecy around the use of personal data would have to be lifted.