behavioral icon
This little “i” surrounded by a circle on a blue background, is the advertising industry’s answer to privacy concerns. It could be summed up as ‘interest’ based ads.

As behavioural targeting gains prominence with advertisers to increase their effectiveness online, the reactions and criticism’s from privacy advocacy groups is undoubtedly becoming louder. In an effort to self-regulate, the US industry has agreed on a standard icon that will seek to be implemented by any ad that use demographics and behavioral data in an effort to tell consumers what is happening.

Jules Polonetsky, the co-chairman and director of the Future of Privacy Forum (FPF), an advocacy group that helped create the symbol, is hoping the symbol will become as widely recognized and accepted as the little green arrows of the recycling symbol, as reported by the New York Times.

The idea was “to come up with a recycling symbol — people will look at it, and once they know what it is, they’ll get it, and always get it,” Mr. Polonetsky said.

The creative agency Ogilvy, under the direction of global marketing communications company WPP have been working alongside the FPF for some time on the concept. The objective is to gain consumer confidence in the same way a ‘padlock symbol’ was introduced to browsers to denote when secure pages were being used in e-commerce in order to provide a visual aid whilst online transaction were taking place.

“Only by being more transparent and dispelling the notion that behavioural advertising is a secret process can businesses partner with consumers to deliver personalization that will be valued.”

Though no legal requirement – yet – the push is for all major companies running targeted online ads to begin adding the icon to their ads by midsummer, along with phrases such as “why did I get this ad?”

There is now a call for this to happen on the other side of the pond in the UK too, which will no doubt start an international evaluation of adopting this concept.

I think this is an exciting development in bridging the great divide between the consumer feeling that advertisers’ are using technology akin to rifling through their garbage in order to know something about them, as opposed to merely knocking on the front door and asking them if they can help. As such I for one am totally behind this initiative and will seek to help promote this adoption globally.

However, an icon can only be the first step in helping people evaluate the effectiveness of more relevant advertising, and in creating new open methods for consumers to choose how and what ads and when and where. Consumer education will need to accompany this, and that is going to be very tricky when people can be predisposed to assume advertising is a ‘bad’ thing anyway, let only with any technological advancements. This is where the concepts of comparing to an e-Commerce padlock and recycling symbols fall down – the assumption is these are positive enhancements, but advertising – well it just isn’t is it? It’s intrusive and annoying and…

Therefore an icon in and of itself therefore itself isn’t going to cut it and if anything it will just highlight the issue more and provoke panic without clear understanding of any benefits. That is why the ‘I’ for ‘interest-based’ holds a lot of potential. Personally, if I never have to watch a feminine hygiene ad on my TV ever again, and could opt to watch ads of sexy new cars and gadgets, I say bring it on – and that right fast.