Digital advertising and the Cookie Monster

Once upon a time, advertising promotions could only be seen in the likes­­­­ of newspapers or magazines, on leaflets, posters, on the good old TV, on billboards, by word of mouth, heard on the radio or pasted on to a sandwich board and attached to an odd-looking person walking down the street.

25 Feb 2015

by David Allard

This was the case until the internet boomed. In 1994, HotWired, an online companion to Wired magazine, made online banner ads mainstream by selling en masse to AT&T and other companies, heralding a new era of online advertising. The rest is certainly not history – it is developing rapidly, with online advertising now being targeted to our own personal tastes and behaviour (see the view of Michael Smith, Chief Digital Officer at Forbes Media, below).

It is estimated that we spend, on average, 23 hours a week online, be it on a PC or mobile. Our connected experiences during this time are decorated with advertising magically promoting things we are interested in, popping up on websites that might not be related to the product or business that is being marketed, but how is that possible?

It’s thanks to cookies. Like the Cookie Monster, they are now a familiar part of our diet. When you visit almost any website there will be a pop-up warning that they use cookies and by using the site you give your consent to them being used (as detailed in their privacy policy which no one has the time to read). A cookie, in the digital sense, is a small piece of data which is sent from the site domain that you are visiting and stored on your web browser. When you re-visit the website, your browser will send the cookie back to the site domain to inform them of your previous activity on the site, such as saving a shopping cart or presenting you with content or products you might be interested in based on your previous movements.

Cookies are an incredibly effective way for websites to deliver a more personal experience to their visitors. Variants of cookies can also be used to not only track your activity on a single website, but also your browsing history and overall online behaviour.

Tracking cookies and third-party cookies are used to compile long-term records of your personal online activity. This information is what third party ad-serving companies will use to target their clients’ promotions to you, based on your presumed personal interests, and even advertise them at a time when your online behaviour is deemed to be “ripe for a sale”. Although this targeted way of promoting products can be effective (it has prompted me to follow up on a product or two in the past), it can feel quite Orwellian in its nature.

The pre-internet equivalent of this targeted advertising activity (with tracking or third-party cookies) would have involved someone placing you under constant surveillance while you shopped and record the products you looked at, then follow you around with adverts related to your presumed interests and at times when you were most likely to make a purchase. Would this type of advertising strategy have been seen as acceptable? I don’t think so, but advertisers are able to achieve the same effect online without becoming overtly intrusive on our personal lives.

In 2011, a program was launched by the Digital Advertising Alliance called AdChoices to give people the option to opt out of advertising companies using their online behaviour to present personalised promotions. You may well have seen the AdChoices blue triangular icon in the corner of many banners, but most consumers are not aware of its function or purpose – market research by Parks Associates shows that awareness of AdChoices only grew from 5% in 2011 to 6% in 2013.

So, our online activity is being monitored (to some degree). On the plus side, we are now seeing more relevant promotions while third-party advertising supports free content on many sites. Also, there is a setting on your browser (not too easy to find for some) in which you can block third-party cookies, so we do have a choice. But I wonder where all this tracking activity will lead us and if there will come a point where the “Cookie Monsters” will have overstepped the mark in terms of personal privacy. Who knows what the next 20 years will bring?


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