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    When Targeted Advertising Can Add to an Emotional Burden

    Increasingly, targeted behavioral advertising is in the news. Sometimes, the ads created and displayed to individuals are innocuous. But the targeted advertising also can add to a person’s emotional burden at difficult times, as detailed in a recent case below. 

    Targeted behavioral advertising is where a user’s online activity is tracked so that ads can be served based on the user’s behavior. What began as online data gathering has expanded — now there’s online and offline data collection and the tracking of consumers’ habits. Companies can also buy information on individuals from data brokers.

    Some people are uncomfortable with the tracking and targeting by companies and attempt to opt out; by declining to be tracked via e-mail address or by having your Web browser send an opt-out signal to a company as you conduct your online activity. Opt-out puts the burden on consumers to learn about what the privacy policies are, whether they protect consumer data, whom the data is shared with and for what purpose, and how to opt out of this data collection, use and sharing. Consumer advocates support opt-in policies, where companies have an incentive to create strong privacy protections and use limitations so consumers will choose to share their data. 

    People also have installed ad-blocker technology to avoid seeing ads. But there has been a battle. For example, Apple’s Safari browser and Mozilla’s Firefox browser have included anti-tracking technology for years. However, some companies choose not to respect Do Not Track signals sent by Web browsers.

    What happens when data is gathered for targeted behavioral advertising as a person browses online? A company can connect the dots between Web searches for cribs and car seats and a woman’s pregnancy. This ability to connect a person’s online life and real life can lead to painful situations, as detailed by Washington Post writer Gillian Brockell. 

    In December, she wrote about her stillbirth and how the emotional pain of that experience was heightened after she returned to social media and faced the targeted advertising that had tracked her pregnancy:

    And when we millions of brokenhearted people helpfully click “I don’t want to see this ad,” and even answer your “Why?” with the cruel-but-true “It’s not relevant to me,” do you know what your algorithm decides, Tech Companies? It decides you’ve given birth, assumes a happy result and deluges you with ads.  […]

    And then, after all that, Experian swoops in with the lowest tracking blow of them all: a spam email encouraging me to “finish registering your baby” with them (I never “started,” but sure) to track his credit throughout the life he will never lead.

    She faced hurdles as she attempted to try to opt out of the targeted advertising by Experian. In a Twitter thread earlier this month, she explained that she called Experian to cancel her service with the consumer credit-reporting company. After the call, the company stopped charging her for the service. But Experian continued to send emails asking her to check her account. She wanted to opt out completely from any correspondence with the company. “But there is no unsubscribe option” to click in the emails from Experian, she wrote. 

    So it was back to the customer service phone line. After some delay, Brockell learns she needs to send in a form via postal mail to opt out of receiving emails from Experian. She concluded:

    So yeah, now I am waiting 7-10 business days to receive a form to fill out and mail back so I can stop getting emails from the company that sent me spam telling me to register my child for lifetime credit tracking 7-10 business days after I delivered him stillborn.  

    This is just one example of how difficult it can be to opt out of tracking. It shouldn’t be this way. Companies should make it easy to opt out of receiving targeted advertising based on highly personal, and sometimes highly painful, information. The obvious incentive is that people will not be persuaded by targeted advertising that they dislike, for whatever reason. Experian lost Brockell as a customer because of its practices. It is a self-inflicted public relations wound on the part of Experian. Her story has gotten a lot of publicity, and it is possible that the bad experience that she had with the company has convinced others (current or potential customers) not to use its services. 

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