Industry not doing enough to help consumers opt out of targeted online ads: report

It can be hard to win people’s trust when you’re stalking them.

But that’s just how online advertising can seem: You browse for a few pairs of shoes, or some new headphones, or a car, and suddenly with every move you make, ads for those products pop up around every corner on the Web.

In a bid to cultivate trust among consumers, the Canadian industry joined a global program to explain how and why targeted or “behavioural” advertising happens, and to give people the chance to opt out. Now, more than two years into that program, organized by the Digital Advertising Alliance of Canada (DAAC), a report on industry compliance has found that participants are not always helping people to opt out completely, and consumers are sometimes confused about what exactly the program covers.

The report, released on Wednesday by self-regulatory group Advertising Standards Canada, found that three-quarters of the more than 200 participating websites reviewed “did not include opt-outs for all companies that appeared to be collecting or using [visitors’] data for [online behavioural advertising] purposes.”

The industry is working to fix that, said Linda Nagel, president and chief executive officer of Advertising Standards Canada.

People can exercise control over targeted advertising through the website; or by clicking on the blue triangular “Ad Choices” icon that appears in the corner of targeted ads, or sometimes at the top of websites where cookies are used to track people’s behaviour for advertising purposes.

“This is a work in progress,” Ms. Nagel said. “The Ad Choices program is new to consumers, and it’s new to the industry. It’s being embraced, but there is more work to do.”

The program’s roughly 65 participants include publishers (such as Rogers Communications Inc. and The Globe and Mail), companies that advertise (such as Unilever Canada Inc., Loblaw Cos. Ltd., and Ford Motor Co. of Canada Ltd.) and companies involved in the placement of those ads (such as MediaMath and Google Inc., for example.)

The report examined websites of 78 per cent of DAAC’s participants, and found that 96 per cent of those reviewed have begun to implement the program’s policies, but that most are not yet fully compliant.

For example, the Canadian arm of the program requires websites to give notice to visitors, near the top of the site, if the site is collecting their data for advertising purposes. While three-quarters of websites gave notice, only 25 per cent did so prominently near the top of the site.

There is also an issue with the tiers of control available to consumers, depending on where they come across that triangular “Ad Choices” icon. People who visit the program’s website directly have the option to opt out of targeted advertising from participants across the board; while people who click on the icon on a website might only be given the opt-out option for targeting within that website. Others who click the icon within an ad might only be offered the chance to opt out of ads from that particular advertiser or ad placement company.

“We’re trying to push the industry, wherever possible, to link to our website,” said Julie Ford, executive director of DAAC. “We’re figuring out how to simplify things a little more. It’s a big challenge because there are a lot of parties involved, but I think it’s solvable.”

DAAC has also committed to spend more on its own advertising in 2016 than it did this year, to further educate consumers about the program and what it offers.

Advertising Standards Canada received 115 complaints under the new “Internet behavioural advertising” complaints procedure tied to the program, from January through November of this year.

Of those, 73 complaints were about issues not related to targeted ads at all: They included broader complaints about seeing ads online, the appearance of ads in e-mail or on social media services, or concerns about hackers and viruses.

All 20 complaints that were related to targeted ads had to do with the impression that the opt-out mechanism did not work. However, this was usually because consumers misunderstood the opt-out – some thought it meant they could prevent any ads from appearing online, and others opted out and subsequently saw ads that they thought were targeted, but were actually part of broader reach campaigns delivered generally.

“Many complaints were not about targeted advertising, they were about advertising in general … ,” Ms. Nagel said. “Clearly, when we look at our complaints, some consumer education needs to be done.”

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