Advertising trade bodies in the US have adopted a new symbol to tell consumers when they are being served behavioural adverts. The symbol – an ‘i’ in a circle – may soon find its way into behavioural adverts in the UK. Phil Lee reports.
Topic: On-line advertising
Who: Interactive Advertising Bureau (US), Direct Marketing Association (US), the American Association of Advertising Agencies and the Association of National Advertisers
When: January 2010
Law stated as at: 26 February 2010
When Osborne Clarke ran its international online behavioural advertising survey across forty different territories last year, the responses we received made it painfully clear that – at that time – many advertisers were simply not disclosing their behavioural advertising practices to consumers. (Interested readers may like to know that we are currently rerunning our survey and will publish updated results in a couple of months.)
Why give consumers notice?
Fair processing is a cornerstone of European data privacy law and requires that consumers are properly informed whenever their personal information is processed, whether for behavioural advertising or for other purposes. Giving consumers notice of behavioural advertising is also a key requirement of the IAB's good practice principles – signatories to the principles must notify consumers whenever their data (personal or otherwise) is used for behavioural advertising purposes.
Yet despite these requirements, many advertisers prefer not to disclose when they are using behavioural advertising. This is typically for two key reasons:
(i) firstly, the complex nature of behavioural advertising makes it difficult to explain in a clear and understandable way to consumers; and
(ii) secondly, many advertisers fear that consumers will perceive behavioural advertising in a negative light and simply opt out of receiving it.
This second line of reasoning concern is particularly harmful to the industry – advertisers who fail to disclose behavioural advertising only confirm in the minds of consumers that behavioural advertising is somehow a secretive practice and an unwarranted intrusion into their privacy rights. As a consequence, consumers become more likely to opt out behavioural advertising, and advertisers then become less likely to disclose behavioural advertising. Ultimately, the reasoning becomes self-fulfilling, resulting in a vicious circle of non-disclosure and opt-outs.
A solution to the problem?
However, a solution may now be at hand. A coalition of ad trade bodies in the US has come up with a consumer-friendly symbol to notify consumers when they are being served with behavioural adverts.
The symbol, which consists of the letter 'i' in a circle, has been agreed by the American Association of Advertising Agencies (AAAA), the Association of National Advertisers (ANA), the Direct Marketing Association (DMA), the Council for Better Business Bureaus (BBB) and the Interactive Advertising Bureau (the US IAB – not to be confused with the Internet Advertising Bureau in the UK).
The idea is that the symbol is accompanied by prescribed, specific explanatory language that sheds light on what the symbol is about. Three alternative wordings have been approved so far and these are "Why did I get this/these ad (s)?", "Interest-based ad (s)" or "Ad choice(s)."
Posting the symbol next to online adverts serves to notify consumers that the advert is served on the basis of behavioural profiling and that the advertiser concerned adheres to US self-regulatory rules for behavioural advertising. Users can click on the symbol to be provided with an easy-to-understand explanation of behavioural advertising is and how they can choose to opt-out. Displaying the symbol is therefore designed to improve confidence in consumers that their personal information is being treated in a respectful, compliant way.
The IAB in the UK is understood to be looking at the possibility of rolling out the symbol on a similar basis for UK behavioural advertisers – a move which would ensure consistent notification practices across the US and UK and which would undoubtedly be welcomed by consumers.
Why this matters:
It is difficult to understand how worked up consumers really are about behavioural advertising. Different surveys say different things (sometimes depending on who is asking the question). Some will tell you consumers are deeply suspicious of behavioural advertising, while others will tell you that consumers see the whole debate as a storm in a teacup.
Whatever the case, one thing is certain: introducing measures to ensure consumers are properly notified and able to exercise choice over the use of their information for behavioural advertising will benefit the industry. With European and national legislators threatening to introduce burdensome regulation, the industry needs to act now to show that they can self-regulate in a meaningful way.
The introduction of this symbol is therefore a huge step in the right direction, and a clear indication that the industry takes its responsibilities to consumers seriously. If the 'i' symbol is rolled out to the UK, it will be a rare (possibly unprecedented) instance of an industry coming together to adopt a global solution that helps respect individuals' privacy rights. This can only help to win over the hearts and minds of consumers – and regulators – who remain wary of the technology.