Targeted advertising makes sense; pitching a product or service to a known receptive market is cost- and time-efficient. But some targeted ads pop up at awkward times, making them seem silly, annoying, or downright offensive. This begs the question: has targeted advertising gone too far?

A quick definition for newbies: Targeted ads are advertisements tailored to the viewer. For example, if you’re browsing a veterinary web site, you might see ads for doggy daycare, pet medicines, and other animal-related goods and services relevant to the site. Those ads are aimed at viewers of that particular web site, who are likely to be pet owners. Hence, targeted ads.

Targeted advertising is nothing new. Anyone who has watched television will know that ads target different demographics at different times. Most daytime television commercials tout household cleaners, weight loss services, and baby products – perfect for new moms staying at home, watching television while the baby naps. Saturday morning cartoons drown in targeted ads for the latest and greatest toys. Late night television goes heavy on the dating and get-rich-quick ads.

The Age of Information has brought with it a new audience for targeted ads – the whole world. Online advertising is the fastest-growing sector of the ad industry. Google AdSense is the most ubiquitous targeted ad service on the Internet. Instead of remaining static, Google’s targeted ads rotate frequently. They are pulled from a pool of Google AdWords customers who have paid for their ads to show up on web sites.

Do Targeted Ads Violate Your Privacy?
Do Targeted Ads Violate Your Privacy?

Rotating targeted ads can open the door to a lot of wrongness. For example, when I was reading a CNN article about the Jena Six, I was offended by the targeted ad at the end of the story inviting me to „Date Hot Local Thugs“. Likewise, readers have been taken aback by targeted ads for sleeping pills that have turned up on articles about the late Heath Ledger. As you can see, targeted ads can be distasteful in certain contexts.

Google’s Gmail service also uses targeted ads based on the content of e-mail messages. Google assures us that the process is completely automated, and that no actual human being is sitting there reading our e-mails. But it all becomes a little surreal when even your spam generates targeted ads. The next time you clear out your Gmail „Spam“ folder, check out the text ads for „Spam Recipes“, „Spam Bake“, and all things spammy. That’s worthy of a little ridicule.

Google isn’t the only perpetrator of targeted ads which push the boundaries of good taste. Verizon is selling its customers‘ information for use by third parties who will target their ads at cell phone users. YouTube presents ads based on the content of the videos you view. Internet phone and television service (VOIP and IPTV) is the next great frontier for targeted ads. Receiving such ads over your television just seems like good business sense on the part of the advertisers. But when the content of your phone conversations is used to generate targeted ads, things get a little scary. Is the data stored somewhere? Can it be sold to third parties or monitored by officials? All we’ve got so far are assurances that phone conversation data is disposed of after the targeted ads are generated.

The European Union has cast a critical eye at targeted ads, questioning whether they promote corporate greed over user privacy. Vincent Bonneau of French telecom research group Idate says, „Online sites have to make sure they are not intruding [on] people’s privacy, otherwise targeted advertising will backfire.“ For now, though, there’s no end in sight.

– Astrid Wendlandt, „Targeted web advertising to come under EU scrutiny“. Reuters UK.
– Wikipedia Entry, „AdSense“. Wikipedia.
– Thomas Claburn, „Startup Offers Free Calls In Exchange for Eavesdropping“. InformationWeek.