The Evolution of Online Behavioral Advertising

By Jennyfer Gouné, Senior Associate, Ad Operations, Universal McCann

Remember when online ads used to be arbitrary animated gifs? You didn’t know why you received them or how they related to any of the content on the page, but you clicked on them if you thought they were cool and you didn’t if you thought they weren’t. Today, online advertising has become so complex that you might not even recognize an ad as an ad because they align so well with the page content that you are interested in. The evolution of online behavioral advertising (OBA) has completely changed the way advertisers reach consumers and the way consumers interact with ads online.

According to Todd Ruback, Chief Privacy Officer at Evidon, Inc., “Advertising has gone from a very simplistic business model to crowded and complex.” The IAB’s Internet Advertising Revenue Report indicates that display-related advertising revenues in 2012 totaled 33 percent of 2012 revenues. “Evolution has gotten to a point where advertisers are able to serve up very specific, relevant, advertisements based on users’ internet behavior,” says Ruback.

In the early 90’s, the internet landscape was very static. Companies were leasing ad space on websites and ads weren’t relevant or specific to users. It wasn’t until the mid-90’s that cookies were developed. These cookies were first used to track consumers’ activity through browsers. Today cookies can track much more such as login information, demographic information, and shopping cart information. As a result, advertisers have begun to use this data to deliver relevant ads to consumers and enhance the consumer browsing experience.

Unfortunately, delivering relevant, behaviorally targeted ads also impacts the privacy of consumers. Peter B. Kosmola, former Managing Director of the Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA) and current SVP, Government Affairs at the 4A’s says, “Any company that is doing this kind of [online behavioral] advertising should do it appropriately.”

In order to let consumers choose whether to be behaviorally targeted, the DAA was formed. The DAA developed seven Self-Regulatory Principles for Online Behavioral Advertising to address concerns about the use of personal data in interest based advertising. These tenets are designed to not only provide a choice to consumers, but to also preserve the innovative and robust internet advertising landscape.

Companies like Evidon were formed to build a compliance tool on web pages (Site Notice) and in-banner (Ad Notice) that allow consumers to opt-out of behaviorally targeted ads. The compliance notices were originally built to allow companies to comply with the ePrivacy Directive and currently serve on the web, mobile, and in-banner environments. According to Ruback, Evidon supports the approach of transparency and control, giving consumers as much information as possible so they can make informed decisions. Legislators, such as Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-West Virginia), have responded to online consumer privacy issues as well. In a recent Senate Commerce Hearing on the status of Do Not Track (DNT) development, Rockefeller stated “The efficacy of the Ad Choices program remains questionable.” He believes that consumers should have the right to choose and is the creator of the Do Not Track Online Privacy Act, an act that protects users’ right to choose whether or not to be tracked by third party websites.

Whether you are delighted to receive interest-based ads or you are a staunch advocate for consumer privacy, it is important to understand your choices. is a great resource to learn more about the AdChoices program and how to identify the AdChoices icon. There are many ways to opt-out of behaviorally targeted ads online. The most common way is by clicking on the AdChoices icon and opting out on the landing page. However, most consumers should know that they can also avoid behavioral targeting by visiting the NAI Consumer Opt-Out website, speaking with their consumer protection agencies, visiting, or contacting the DAA directly. Keep in mind that clearing your browser cookies can make you susceptible to behavioral targeting even after opting out. For those who routinely clear out their cookies, this may be of concern. Fortunately, “[The] DAA has developed a ‘hardened cookie’ or a ‘persistent cookie’ for the purposes of opting out of the program,” says Kosmola. This cookie was developed in 2012 and designed to keep consumers opted out even after deleting their cookies.

In the words of Kosmola, “You can either opt-out or stay in, it’s your choice and we respect that.” To read more about OBA and the AdChoices program, please visit the links below:

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