Targeting Proves Its Worth | Regulatory Rumblings | Blogs | ANA

Targeting Proves Its Worth

September 13, 2021

The California privacy law allows for certain demographic and other data categorized as sensitive under the law to be utilized to target information to the public subject to an opt out for use and disclosure.

Unfortunately, some state and federal legislators and regulators are trying to impose far broader restrictions.

They would only allow this information to be used for targeting if someone has previously opted-in and some are even trying to ban targeted ads completely. This may block or severely impede the ability to get key information to vulnerable or other groups with critical health and other information. These overly sweeping restrictions would be severely harmful and misguided. 

The recent experience in responding to COVID-19 and the Delta variant threat provides a powerful case study on the appropriate and effective use of targeting to help combat a major societal challenge.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage here in the United States, various entities have discovered a tool that advertisers have been using for quite a while: targeted ads. Companies, government agencies, nonprofits and others are using ads with different content but the same intention: induce people to get vaccinated against this deadly disease. The ads are based on the realization that messaging based on specific interests or characteristics can be very effective. For example, the Kaiser Family Foundation (a nonprofit working on health issues) is using collective location data to reach those living in areas with low vaccination rates. Rather than deploying a single national ad, the Foundation‘s Tina Hoff finds targeted ads are less costly and more efficient. She says, “we’re in this unique moment for public health messaging where we can see what people are really looking for … and meet them where they are.”

The vaccination effort spans multiple segments of the U.S. population, and many ads are running in English and Spanish, to reach different communities. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is reaching out to Native Americans with an ad showing a person whose mask is decorated with Native American symbols. State and local health departments encourage vaccines in traditional and online media, on billboards and at bus stops. Conservatives are approached through messages touting the U.S. military’s reliance on the vaccines and via Breitbart in an ad referring to the vaccines as a “shot to restore our freedoms” that shows children headed to school. Facebook users searching for issues related to the Catholic Church can see a Pope Francis video emphasizing that vaccines are a “moral choice.” Targeted ads about the vaccination effort are everywhere. 

The ad industry itself is involved in this effort. For only the second time, The Ad Council is collaborating with a large group of nonprofits and brands (including the NAACP, the Rockefeller Foundation, and former Food and Drug Administration commissioners) to address some population groups’ hesitancy about the vaccines. Lisa Sherman, the President and CEO of the Ad Council, said that the group is involved because, “we are dealing with the biggest public health crisis of our lifetime, and it really felt like we had to meet that moment with the most significant public education effort ever.” The Ad Council’s research showed that vaccine hesitancy has many different aspects, and so any ad outreach would have to be customized to address those specific elements. Its digital ad entitled, “It’s Up To You” shows people enjoying wonderful experiences and ends with the tagline “The best connections will always be IRL” (in real life). Elsewhere in the industry, Pereira O’Dell and NBCUniversal are involved with messages to skeptics that it is acceptable to question the vaccine’s safety, and Google is running ads showing bandaged arms of vaccine recipients.

This is a new day for targeted advertising, which has been inaccurately maligned. Targeted ads have been accused of being discriminatory since they are addressed to specific population segments and individuals based on unique characteristics. 

However, the very data subject to these unreasonable restraints is used by companies to mitigate against bias in algorithms and discriminatory outcomes.

Others have said that they are too intrusive, barging into peoples’ personal lives and space uninvited. Still others have said that targeted ads are divisive, especially in our political environment (e.g., Congresswoman Anna Eshoo introduced legislation that prohibits online entities — including ad networks, streaming services and social media corporations — from targeting political ads based on the demographic or behavioral data of users).

But consumers and advertisers know differently. ANA has always pointed out the salutary benefits and success of targeted ads, urging that they be allowed so long as they are non-discriminatory. Proper use of specific data allows marketers to know customers, predict their preferences, and offer them selected items. Consumers see ads more relevant to them and can relate to the content, while becoming more informed about products and services. A Digital Advertising Alliance poll found that 70 percent of U.S. respondents appreciate ads tailored to their interests, compared to 16 percent who prefer generic ads. Start-up businesses and others have used these ads for many years with good results. Clearly targeted ads work, and they are preferred by consumers. 

Targeted ads aren’t perfect, of course. They have been used to spread misinformation and there are certainly challenges involved with monitoring claims made in targeted ads. However, it is revealing that public health officials now recognize their benefits and use them to address this very serious pandemic. As Joe Smyser (the chief executive of the nonprofit Public Good Health Projects) said, “we need to make sure people are seeing the things that will resonate with them. Every dollar needs to count.” Targeted ads are being seen in an entirely new light, and hopefully that will put an end to ill-conceived efforts to eliminate or unduly limit their use.

comments (1)

Kris Crawford

September 19, 2021 9:25am ET

It's always interesting to see the politicians advocating for regulating digital advertising are the ones who use it the most in their own election campaigns.

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