Claire Beale on Advertising: Time the online watchers were being watched

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The Independent Online

They're watching us. We're being watched. I don't just mean out there, on the streets, though did you know that a quarter of the world's entire supply of CCTV cameras are trained on us Brits. Apparently. Now they're watching us in our homes and offices too. Whenever we're using the web, in fact. They're tracking our journeys, seeing where we go, what sites we visit, where we like surfing.

Down at the Googleplex in Mountain View, eyes are on us. Thirty-two million Brits every month are coming under Google's gaze. Eighty per cent of the global online population is being scrutinised. The web is the window through which they're tracking our lives. They're watching us so they can sell us stuff. They're using our personal data to make money. Chilling, isn't it? Do you feel violated? The civil liberties lobby hopes you do.

Time for a little perspective then. Companies have been tracking our internet usage patterns for years, storing our search histories, mapping our activities. They just haven't been using the information for anything much. Now they're starting to monetise that data.

And let's be clear: the web giants aren't interested in your web habits related to your politics, your religion, your sexual predilections. Someone else might be interested, but not Google. They're not allowed to be. Any sites deemed "sensitive" by the European Union are out of bounds. So it's not about exploiting your appetite for pornography, or that nasty rash you've been checking out on medical sites, or your online financial dealings.

It is about using cookies to track what you like looking at and then interpreting that data to refine the sort of ads you see as you wander round the web. So if you've been searching for holidays in Corfu, you might find ads for suntan lotion or airlines or car hire appearing when you're getting your online news fix or watching a video on YouTube.

The technique is called behavioural targeting and it's the new big thing in online advertising and the current economic climate has made it a prioity. As advertisers seek to extract every drop of value from their ad spend, making sure their ads are being seen by the right people at the right time is vital. Behavioural targeting, in theory at least, maximises advertising efficiency and panders to the current obsession with Return On Investment.

At the same time the digital industry is starting to shape a consensus on how to drive this value home. So two weeks ago the Internet Advertising Bureau launched a new code of conduct in an attempt to address consumer fears over the invasion of privacy. And the IAB hopes the code will also put behavioural targeting on a more tangibly professional and accountable footing.

Google, Yahoo! and the behavioural ad firm Phorm are among the companies that have signed up to the code, which requires that web companies tell their users clearly what behavioural tracking is and how they can opt out if they wish.

All of which set the stage nicely for Google to launch its new behavioural targeting system last week, using its AdSense partner sites and YouTube to deliver advertising specifically tailored to individual users.

Adland has already welcomed Google's initiative as a benchmark for how to do behavioural targeting efficiently and responsibly. The trouble is that for the pressure groups and many punters, monitoring our private movements is unacceptable, no matter how efficiently it is handled.

The challenge for the ad industry now is to quickly get across the consumer benefits of behavioural targeting. Benefits like reducing unnecessary ad clutter in favour of appropriate and relevant advertising that just might be useful to us. And benefits like making all the free web content we enjoy more financially viable for the people who produce it.

Behavioural targeting is the new commercial reality, and it won't be long before data from our web habits is used to target us with specific ads on TV, too. And god knows the TV industry needs a financial fillip.

Best in show: Cravendale milk (Wieden & Kennedy)

*Bad bull wants milk and he's headbutted chicken into the dartboard. The barman in the milk bar serves bull a bottle of milk, and another till there's none left.

So the barman decides to send him down the shoot to the purity room, where the bull loses his black spots and reappears all white and pure and nice. And that's why milk matters.

It's the latest delicious ad for Cravendale milk by Wieden & Kennedy and it's thoroughly mad and guaranteed to make milk more interesting to kids.

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