Ever notice that one banner ad that seems to follow you around as you surf the internet?  It could be one for L.L. Bean, Porsche, or even a local company that knows you love a French Toast and so their ad offers 5 bucks off if you bring a friend.  How and why are these ads appearing for you?  Were you recently on an outdoors website researching a fly fishing trip?  Did you view an ad for a new car above $50,000?  The ads are all too coincidental, and the reason is: “cookies”.

Cookies allow advertisers to gather behavioral data about your web browsing experience and then deliver ads that seem the most relevant, regardless if you have ever wanted something from L.L. Bean.  More specifically, cookies store on your computer’s hard drive and report back to advertising networks the sites you have been to, the ads you have clicked, and the purchases you have made.  A method known as “retargeting” is also frequently used. If you click an ad, go to the website and then leave then leave, retargeting will make sure you see that advertisement again on another website.  The Interactive Advertising Bureau found that in 2009, more than 80 percent of digital ad campaigns used behavioral targeting by way of cookies.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has heard plenty of complaints from consumers and privacy groups, and now a Do Not Track proposal is being considered. If this proposal were to go into effect, it would allow all web consumers the ability to opt-out of any and all tracking cookies.

This could mean very dark days for advertising networks and also make things worse when it comes to the experience of using the web.  If you remember 10 or so years ago websites had banners at the top, the bottom, the side, and sometimes popping up right in your face.  The ads flat out sucked and interfered with the experience as compared to many ads that appear on websites now.  If you have ever shopped on Amazon or Zappos.com you’ll frequently see “Suggested Items” that may be similar to items you have previously looked at.  Amazon is being an automated, helpful salesperson for you.  It knows what product you looked at, how long you looked at it, and the fact that you spent all that time but decided not to buy.  Like a sales representatives in a high end store, this is Amazon’s way of helping you, and this is known as targeted advertising.

If the Do Not Track initiative goes through, it will be an advertising Twilight Zone; obnoxious, unrelated ads all across a webpage may be coming back. Read the formal FTC news release by going to this link https://www.ftc.gov/opa/2010/12/dnttestimony.shtm

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