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Will Online Political Targeting Generate a Voter Backlash?

BY Micah L. Sifry | Tuesday, August 7 2012

Two weeks ago, the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania released a national survey on public attitudes towards targeted political advertising, and the results were unequivocal.

  • 86% of Americans say they do not want "political advertising tailored to your interests." Somewhat smaller majorities also said they don't want ads for products and services (61%) or news (56%) tailored to their interests.
  • 85% agreed "If I found out that Facebook was sending me ads for political candidates based on my profile information that I had set to private, I would be angry.”
  • More than 3/4 said they wouldn't return to a website if they knew if was sharing information about them with political advertisers.
  • 70% say they would be less likely to vote for a candidate they support if they found out that their campaign was using Facebook to send ads to friends of that person saying they "like" that candidate's Facebook page.
  • And two-thirds said their likelihood of voting for a candidate would decrease if they found out they were tailoring messages to them and their neighbors by purchasing information about their online activities, and then sending them different messages based on what might appeal to each.

This survey and accompanying report, which was co-authored by Joseph Turow, Michael X. Delli Carpini, Nora Draper and Rowan Howard-Williams, should be setting off alarm bells across the online political advertising world. That's because it has exposed a deep divide between what the public says it is comfortable with, and what vendors and campaigns are actually doing. But the principals at two leading firms I contacted, DSPolitical and Campaign Grid, seemed sanguine, even dismissive, of the report's findings.

All of the practices listed above are common among today's political campaigns. DSPolitical, a Democratic firm, brags in this video about taking a campaign's voter file and matching it against the cookies that commercial advertisers have placed in users' browsers, the better to target the right ads at the right people. Targeted Victory, which works for Republicans from the Romney campaign on down, openly describes on its blog how it combines voter data with consumer data.

Campaigns have been collecting information about voters and trying to target interest groups and voting blocs for more than a hundred years, as the Annenberg report notes. And since the invention of direct mail, they've been narrowcasting messages in all kinds of ways. But with the web and now the rise of mobile, campaigns' pursuit and use of information about individuals has never been more sophisticated. Sure, they ask people to voluntarily share some data when they register on a candidate's website or sign up for a Facebook app. But they also quietly put cookies on their browsers, buy information about their behavior from third party tracking services, pick up the geographical info shared on their mobile devices, and merge that with consumer data in order to tailor messages according to individual proclivities. If you read the fine print of the Obama campaign's online privacy policy, some of this is spelled out in black and white: "…we may use personal information we collect…to personalize and improve…our users' experiences…such as providing content, or features that match your profiles or interests." The Romney campaign's privacy policy is far less detailed, but it also says that it uses cookies to "serve users more desirable and relevant content."

Of course, all of this is legal. But the super-majorities in the Annenberg poll suggest that while these practices are legal and arguably effective, they may not be wise.

Since the Annenberg report came out, there's been almost no comment on it from the political advertising industry, despite healthy news coverage in places like The New York Times, Marketplace, ClickZ, and GigaOm.

A few days ago, I asked Turow, whose recent book "The Daily You" delves much more deeply into this whole world (and who I interviewed for a PD Plus call back in May), what he made of this non-response. He emailed back:

I’ve been fascinated, and troubled, by this silence.  When our survey of general tailored advertising came out a couple of years ago (and was similarly covered in the Times), ad people were all over it, pro and con.  The silence in the political sphere suggests to me that the execs hope the survey will simply be ignored and they can keep doing what they are doing.  
Their silence raises another issue, which increasingly concerns me.  What impact will the growth of tailored political advertising have on politicians who thus far have championed public oversight and transparency In the commercial advertising sphere?  Will they continue their work when their campaign advisors tell them they must do the same thing to be reelected—despite the public’s negative views of tailored political advertising?   Such conflicts of interest may work against serious governmental  oversight of tracking and related activities in the commercial as well as political sphere.

With those questions in mind, I emailed several online political advertising mavens for their comment. Jim Walsh and Chris Massicotte, the CEO and COO, respectively, of DSPolitical, sent me this statement:

"It is understandable that Americans think that they don't want political advertising tailored to them when asked directly. But the simple fact is, and as this report points out, political advertisers have been tailoring messages to Americans since the beginning of the modern political campaign. When cable TV began political advertisers would choose what channels to advertise on based on their desired demographics and sometimes tailoring different ads on different channels. Tailored online advertising is not very different from tailored direct mail, which has proven very effective. Political Direct Mail firms use the same data that we use to find the right audience for the right message. The only difference is that with targeted online advertising, we don't know where you live, as our ads are targeted using anonymous cookies.  Just like any new technology it comes with a level of apprehension but once people know more about what it can do, namely spare them from being flooded with useless political ads that they would prefer not to see, more people will accept it."

I also received this statement from Rich Masterson, the chairman of Campaign Grid:

"The Annenberg study is interesting but raises more questions then it answers. From a methodology standpoint the researchers never asked respondents if they were registered to vote and whether or not they voted in the last election. Regrettably a majority of Americans don't show up at the polls because they have become disaffected by the process. It's unclear if the respondents are the same people who don't show up at the polls or if they are in fact engaged in the process. Secondly, the researchers made little to no effort to inform the survey respondents that the technology used for targeting is, in fact anonymous. The presumption that an individual's privacy is violated would lead one to assume the results would be negative. Lastly, there are many surveys that indicate Americans do not like negative campaign advertising, exercise or healthy diets. The fact that Americans do not like these things does not make them bad. Using available technology to improve advertising effectiveness and reduce waste, while protecting consumer privacy, is the new normal for political advertisers. As the market leader in the category we are proud of the work we do and, as the Annenberg survey indicated, clients are embracing the solution for the simple reason that it works."

As is obvious, there's a big culture clash coming between what practitioners do and what the public is comfortable with. On one hand, the Annenberg study shows that the vast majority of the public doesn't want to feel personally violated, and that political information is of greater personal concern than other kinds of personal information. Targeters respond that they're not really violating anyone's privacy, because they only use anonymous cookies (never mind that inside their black boxes actual matches between real individual voting data and other personally identifiable information are being made). And besides, they add, it doesn't really matter if people say they don't like these techniques. They also say they don't like negative TV ads and direct mail, but those tools have become normal and so will online political targeting.

Well, maybe so. But people like Walsh, Massicotte and Masterson, and the political operatives and politicians who hire them, may want to remember one key thing about the Internet. Unlike TV or direct mail, it's a two-way medium. The people who are being targeted can talk back. And lately, salient numbers of people have been talking back at all kinds of targets. If the political targeting industry and its clients aren't careful, they may find the bulls-eye painted on their backs.