Consumer protection in our digital age is becoming an ever more complex challenge, with technology constantly evolving and always “newer” new media emerging at lightning speeds. In recent years, online behavioral advertising has taken center stage as one of today’s most hotly-debated marketing practices. There seems to be a consensus amongst regulators that the industry, through self-regulation, should take on the challenge of establishing a transparent opt-out program for addressing privacy concerns and allowing consumers to choose not to have their data collected for future targeted ads.  However, the water gets more murky when it comes to online and mobile advertising to children.  Advertising to children is laden with issues and I’ve talked here on Madison Ave Insights about how the FTC and other regulators have taken a particular interest in children’s privacy and data security.

This year’s Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU) Annual Conference will discuss a number of critical issues in children’s advertising, including apps, social media, and location and other data security.  With more children online (even at school) in today’s age, how do we as advertisers ensure we are keeping kids safe?

The Way I See It

  • I see more challenges arising with new digital, mobile, and social media to address privacy and data security concerns through self-regulation, especially when it comes to children.  With new technologies emerging, the advertising industry is forced to adopt new standards to meet the issues for regulators and consumers.
  • A lot of progress has been made in recent years to address privacy and data security challenges raised by new technology and social media, including the CBBB’s self-regulatory guidelines that implemented the Ad Choices program to allow consumers to opt out of targeted online advertising.
  • I see an increasing commitment from the advertising industry to self-regulate when it comes to children’s issues, as well as new online and mobile platforms, which is a strong signal that the industry will meet calls from regulators to enforce privacy and data issues.

The Way The Industry Sees It

I sat down with Genie Barton, Vice President and Director, Online Interest-Based Advertising Accountability Program and Mobile Marketing Initiatives at the Council of Better Business Bureaus (CBBB), to discuss the effectiveness and challenges of online behavioral advertising (OBA), especially for children.


Online behavioral advertising (OBA) has been under the microscope in recent years with regulators and consumers.  How have you worked to address these issues and what do you expect to improve with OBA moving forward?

Regulators and privacy advocacy groups have varying degrees of concern about the collection and use of data to provide consumers with advertising that is based on their previous browsing activities across websites and time.  In addition, some consumers also have concerns, but there is a high degree of debate regarding consumer preferences. Some studies show significant concern, while others show that in real life scenarios, consumers prefer ads that are relevant over ads that are random.  But what I think we can all agree on is that the two largest areas of concern for regulators, privacy advocates and consumers stem from the largely “invisible” nature of online interest-based advertising.  The industry responded to those concerns, as expressed by the Federal Trade Commission in a staff report providing guidance on how to implement self-regulatory principles governing OBA, by creating consensus principles that provide the transparency and control that were missing.  I like to say that the DAA Principles took the mystery and potential “creepiness” out of interest-based advertising by providing real-time notice and a direct link to an easy-to-use opt-out. These innovations—the sideways blue triangle known as the AdChoices Option Icon, which appears in all interest-based ads, and takes the consumer to an explanation of OBA and a link to a choice mechanism—shine a light for consumers on interest-based ads.

How do you navigate the complexity of and constant changes in online and mobile advertising?  Any tips for advertisers?

I navigate this ecosystem with a lot of help from my friends and fabulous staff, and by constant reading and discussions with people in the industry. Just when I think I have a handle on something, there is another innovation. But that is what makes the job fun and keeps it fresh.  I would advise advertisers to make privacy a positive differentiator for their brand. To do this successfully, the advertiser has to be extremely careful with what companies it engages to guide it on developing an ad campaign. Be sure to deal with an agency and all others in the ecosystem that follow (and ensure that you will be following) the highest industry standards. While an OBA campaign can be the most effective way of reaching the right customer, doing it without the transparency and control provided by the DAA program can actually damage the brand and its relationship with its customers. A recent study showed that consumers prefer to do business with companies that engage with their customers on privacy issues. The study also showed that consumers click on ads with the icon more readily than on ads without it.  So providing consumers with transparency and choice is a positive for the bottom line.

With more children using social media, including Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest, and additional emerging social networks, what sort of new challenges arise for the advertising industry?

Very topical question. I participated in the Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU) discussing the challenges that the new Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) regulations pose for advertisers that engage with children online and on mobile, and with the fact that children are increasingly interacting through social media. While some of these sites age screen and are not directed to children under 13, there are many ins and outs in determining whether a particular website, part of a website, plug-in or other innovation, implicates such laws as COPPA. It would be impossible to try to explain the complexities of the new COPPA regulation here, but the fact that persistent identifiers such as cookies and tags are now considered personal information that cannot be collected without prior verifiable parental consent, is making various kinds of advertising to children increasingly problematic. In addition, with the recent passage in California of the Digital Privacy Rights for Minors Law, which amends California Online Privacy Protection Act (CalOPPA) by requiring that website operators give minors the right to “erase” content they created on those sites, the world is becoming increasingly hard for advertisers to navigate. I also would like to note that the California law defines “minor” as anyone under 18, so that adds another level of complexity and may affect social media in new ways.

With your experience in technology in-house and in the government before moving to the CBBB, you’ve witnessed so much change in online and mobile advertising.  How do you think these changes have, and will continue to, impact the advertising industry?

At my first technology job at the Department of Commerce, I was part of a task force examining what the new phenomenon of the Internet and the World Wide Web would mean globally. A very few forward thinking people even realized that it could be an important medium for advertisers, but we could not have imagined the Internet of today. When I was at the Federal Communications Commission in the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, one of my assignments was to handle the wireless E-911 program. As I worked on location technologies, I wondered why no one was using them for commercial purposes. If only I had invested in that future.  The advent of the smart phone, the emergence of apps and now social media, have altered our world and sometimes radically. We are seeing more rapid adoption of new technologies, which represent real opportunities for advertisers who get it right and potential flame-outs for advertisers who get it wrong. By that I mean that a brand should play in the spaces that it understands and that make sense for its own identity. I hope that as technology evolves and advertising with it, we will see more good come in the form of human empowerment, purposefulness and wider opportunities.

What is the coolest object in your office?

I work from home a lot, and the coolest things around are my three dogs!

Ronald R. Urbach is the Chairman of leading advertising law firm  Davis & Gilbert LLP