This ad’s for you

Marketplace Staff Dec 20, 2010

This ad’s for you

Marketplace Staff Dec 20, 2010


Kai Ryssdal: There was a story in the Wall Street Journal today that’s going to hit a lot of television watchers right where they live. That’d be on the family room couch, suffering through commercials that’re completely irrelevant. Why have to sit through a pet food ad if you don’t have a pet? Or why do you need to know about the newest mini-van when it’s just you driving around out there?

The Journal says Direct TV’s working on what will be the biggest attempt to do targeted ads on TV. The company’s going to use what it knows about you — which is a lot — to give you ads you might actually want to see.

Joseph Turow teaches communications at the University of Pennsylvania. Professor, welcome to the program.

Joseph Turow: Thank you.

RYSSDAL: What is this new system? How does Direct TV gonna know who’s watching and what they want to see ads for?

Turow: Essentially what they’re doing is they’re using your set-top box and your DVR. The DVR is going to load a certain number of commercials in to be used when necessary. The set-top box is basically going to hold data about you and when an advertiser purchases the right to use the data, it’s going to shoot the commercial from the set-top box, and you’re going to watch it.

RYSSDAL: This might be a fundamental question, but how does Direct TV know what they know about us? If you look at Facebook, for instance, they know about us because we tell them. And websites can track our clicks. How does Direct TV know?

Turow: Right now the answer is that it’s extremely primitive. They are contracting with third-party data providers, so one of the companies they’ve said they’ve contracted with is Experion, which is this huge database provider. But the real sophisticated way is to track everything you do through the set-top box, your cable company can already do that. They know exactly what you’re watching. If you link that with data that they know based upon your household’s income and data about the neighborhood in which you live, and then they go out and buy extra information about you, they have an enormous amount of data that they can bring to bear on the commercials and the programs that they can show you.

RYSSDAL: It is, though, somehow a little bit creepier because it’s on your television and it’s coming to you on your living room couch, or is that just me?

Turow: No, it’s not just you. Advertisers wouldn’t like that you used the word “creepy.” Creepy’s a word people have been using a lot lately. Actually, they would probably say it’s more like a direct mail ad, in the sense that they know a certain number of things about you. What they’re not using yet is the stuff that you watch on TV to decide what to send to you.

RYSSDAL: Does it work? Do people stay on channels longer when they’re getting these targeted ads? Do we know that yet?

Turow: There’s some evidence that people watch the commercials more and stay on those channels, yes. It may be because it seems so relevant, it may be because it seems so new, that ‘hey look, I’m getting stuff that seems to be for me.’ The question is, do we want companies making up ideas about who we are based on data they have about us, and what are the privacy implications of that?

RYSSDAL: Well let me ask you, you’re the expert: do we want that from these companies?

Turow: At the very least, I think the companies should be telling us what they’re doing, what data they’re using, and I think we should begin to talk publicly about the question of what does anonymous mean. Right now they’re saying it’s anonymous because they use a code to identify who you are rather than your name. But if your whole world is being displayed for you based upon some code that they have, that links you to whole lot of characteristics that you don’t know about, then I think it’s important for people to know where that’s coming from and have some choice about it.

RYSSDAL: So in theory, our cable television agreement should come with a multi-page privacy statement at the end of it, right?

Turow: Absolutely. And that’s true with supermarkets, that’s true with mobile apps, that’s true with the web — in a way that we can actually understand it.

RYSSDAL: This is a little bit zen but they’re kind of watching us watch them, right?

Turow: In many ways, you’re absolutely right. We have found, in research at the Annenberg Public Policy Center, that Americans know that they’re being tracked, but they really don’t understand how the various points behind the screen get connected.

RYSSDAL: Joseph Turow, from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Professor Turow, thanks a lot for your time.

Turow: My pleasure, sir.

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