Published: November 2009

Study: How people perceive online behavioral advertising

Carnegie Mellon University researchers Aleecia M. McDonald and Lorrie Faith Cranor conducted this study of attitudes about Internet advertising. While many of the participants raised privacy issues in the first few minutes of discussion without any prompting about privacy, most knew little or nothing about online advertising and tracking.

Carnegie Mellon researchers Aleecia M. McDonald and Lorrie Faith Cranor performed this empirical study by conducting in-depth interviews with 14 subjects who answered advertisements to participate in a university study about Internet advertising. The subjects were not informed this study had to do with behavioral advertising privacy. Click here to download a PDF version of the study.

The surveyors asked, “What are the best and worst things about Internet advertising?” and “What do you think about Internet advertising?” Participants held a wide range of views ranging from enthusiasm about ads that inform them of new products and discounts they would not otherwise know about, to resignation that ads are "a fact of life," to resentment of ads that they find “insulting.”

Many participants raised privacy issues in the first few minutes of discussion without any prompting about privacy.

However, it was discovered that many participants have a poor understanding of how Internet advertising works, do not understand the use of first-party cookies, let alone third-party cookies, did not realize that behavioral advertising already takes place, believe that their actions online are completely anonymous unless they are logged into a website, and believe that there are legal protections that prohibit companies from sharing information they collect online.

It was found that participants have substantial confusion about the results of the actions they take within their browsers, do not understand the technology they work with now, and clear cookies as much out of a notion of hygiene as for privacy.

Participants were asked to read the Network Advertising Initiative (NAI) opt-out cookie description, only one understood the text. One participant expressed concern the NAI opt-out program was actually a scam to gather additional personal information. No participants had heard of opt-out cookies or flash cookies.

The researchers found divergent views on what constitutes advertising. This is of great concern to consumer advocates, as industry self-regulation guidelines assume consumers can distinguish third-party widgets from first-party content, and further assume that consumers understand data flows to third-party advertisers.

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