Have Online Ad Networks 'Screwed the Pooch'

According to Tom Wolfe‘s book, The Right Stuffto screw the pooch was a slang phrase that test pilots in the California desert used during the 1950s to describe a pilot who died in the wreckage of his plane.

News last week that DoubleClick is discontinuing its Intelligent Targeting product makes us wonder if DoubleClick and similar online advertising networks have themselves driven crashed the promise of online advertising into the ground.

The dual promise of online advertising was that the consumer would see ads only for things that he wants and that the marketer would be able to buy ads seen only by consumers who want his product. That benefits both consumers and marketers.

However, the key was to know what what each consumer wants. To gain that knowledge, DoubleClick and other online ad networks surveiled online consumers, generally without their knowledge, tracking where they Web surfed and for what. DoubleClick’s Intelligent Targeting product then allowed marketers to sell focused ads based upon Web surfing consumers’ own individual ‘profiles’ — those ‘profiles’ based upon DoubleClick’s surveillance.

The trouble is that DoubleClick and most other online ad networks never learned that:

    (1) Most online surveillance ‘profiles’ are faulty because they track not real people but user of their computers. If I use my personal computer to visit four Web sites, then there is fair probability that I’m interested in those Web sites’ and profiling me on that basis might be true. But if instead my girlfriend, my dog, and myself each were to use my personal computer to visit four Web sites, a profile based upon surveilling which sites were visited would probably yield a profile of a woman who loves Formula One racing and eats dog food.

    (2) In New Media, control lies in a different position than in Mass Media. The Internet has shifed control of its media more into the hands of the consumers and a bit furher out of the hands of publishers or marketers. So, secretly (because that’s how most Web ‘cookies’ work) surveilling online consumers tends to aggravate consumers who discover it. Hence, the consumer privacy uproar about such online surveillance. Consumers also fear that this ‘profile’ information about is being sold and re-used by marketers in ways they no knowledge about or control over.

What was instead needed to fulfill the promise of online advertising was not secret online surveillance of online consumers to create ‘profiles’ about them, but a mutual safe and secure mechanism for consumers to inform the intermediator and marketer about their needs & wants. Its legislative and technological guarantees would provide consumers with assurances that it was safe to disclose their needs & desires to marketers, who would use that information correctly and according to permissions set by the consumers themselves.

However, DoubleClick and similar companies took a spy flight over consumers’ borders and got themselves shot down. They screwed the pooch.