Are Addressable TV Ads 'Spooky'?

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Watch out, America!

Big, scary advertisers want to show you TV ads for stuff you may actually be interested in.

Monday’s Wall Street Journal has a 2,000-word piece about targeted television advertising. In general, it’s a straightforward trend story about efforts on this front by DirecTV and Cablevision (which readers of Multichannel News are already familiar with).

But the piece leads with ominous language implying something sinister is afoot with this new technology. It’s prose worthy of Dan Brown: “The television is channeling you,” the Journal’s Jessica Vascellaro writes. “Data-gathering firms and technology companies are aggressively matching people’s TV-viewing behavior with other personal data — in some cases, prescription-drug records obtained from insurers — and using it to help advertisers buy ads targeted to shows watched by certain kinds of people.”

The article, part of the WSJ’s “What They Know” series on privacy, also includes a sidebar, “How to Opt Out of Having TV Data Put to Use for Advertising Purposes.”

But there’s no discussion about why you should be concerned enough to opt out in the first place. Neither is there any mention in the story about how “prescription-drug records obtained from insurers” are being used, or by whom, apart for the lead (although Vascellaro does cite the keynote presentation by SMGx’s Tracey Scheppach and John Muszynski at B&C/Multichannel News‘ Advanced Advertising 3.0 event last month — SMGx Execs Eye 100% Addressable Ad Universe By Decade’s End).

There’s an unquestioned assumption among many people that marketing techniques based on consumer data are somehow a prima facie danger. But for the TV industry specifically, laws already bar the disclosure or improper use of personally identifiable subscriber information.

Moreover, direct marketers such as credit card issuers have explicitly targeted offers to their customers based on personal info for years — and nobody’s breaking into a feverish sweat about American Express’s practices (see Double Standards on Privacy).

The Journal’s piece today gives the last word to Visible World CEO Seth Haberman, who is quoted saying this about the company’s server room that tracks targeted ads delivered to Cablevision’s New York-area viewers: “We don’t want to look in the window. It is a little spooky.”

To me, it sure sounds like Haberman was making a casual joke. But the article doesn’t indicate that, and in the context of the data privacy concerns raised earlier in the article, Haberman’s comment sounds paranoid rather than playful.

Separately today, Cablevision announced that it worked with GroupM and Visible World to successfully deliver five different TV spots, in the same 30-second ad break across 25 cable networks, on behalf of unspecified brands sometime in Q4 2010.

Were Cablevision’s 2.9 million digital subscribers somehow imperiled because they possibly saw an ad that was more relevant than another?

If you think targeted TV ads are spooky, you should be just as unnerved when the supermarket cashier hands you coupons based on the stuff you just bought or when you get a mortgage-refinance offer in the mail.

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