A little blue symbol is carrying big implications.
Trying to ward off regulators, the advertising industry has agreed on a standard icon — a little “i” — that it will add to most online ads that use demographics and behavioral data to tell consumers what is happening.
Jules Polonetsky, the co-chairman and director of the Future of Privacy Forum, an advocacy group that helped create the symbol, compared it to the triangle made up of three arrows that tells consumers that something is recyclable.
The idea was “to come up with a recycling symbol — people will look at it, and once they know what it is, they’ll get it, and always get it,” Mr. Polonetsky said.
Most major companies running online ads are expected to begin adding the icon to their ads by midsummer, along with phrases like “Why did I get this ad?”
When consumers click on the icon, a white “i” surrounded by a circle on a blue background, they will be taken to a page explaining how the advertiser uses their Web surfing history and demographic profile to send them certain ads.
The symbol will be introduced Wednesday by Mr. Polonetsky’s group and a coalition of trade groups that have been vocal about fending off government regulation.
It comes amid a fierce debate about privacy. Congress has shown interest in the subject. And Federal Trade Commission officials have been vocal, saying that privacy policies of companies are not clear or accessible enough to protect visitors, and debating whether online data is being used appropriately.
Maneesha Mithal, associate director for the division of privacy and identity protection at the Federal Trade Commission, said it was “too early to tell” whether the icon and phrases would work with consumers.
“We support industry efforts to develop a consistent symbol and message that would help educate consumers about online advertising,” Ms. Mithal said in an e-mail message. “We hope they will share data, such as click-through and opt-out rates, that will inform the debate.”
The conversations between the commission and trade groups have become intense over the last year. The gauntlet was thrown last February, when the Federal Trade Commission warned that unless the industry wanted it to step in, it had better devise stricter self-regulatory principles.
That report inspired the project from Mr. Polonetsky and his co-chairman, Christopher Wolf.
“One of the key points,” Mr. Polonetsky said, was about privacy policies. “Legalese is not especially working.”
Mr. Polonetsky’s group, which is a mix of privacy officers of privacy advocates, academics and corporations, began experimenting with icons. Several divisions of the advertising holding company WPP, including GroupM, the Kantar Group and Ogilvy, helped create the icons.
“We said, let’s turn to creative people whose job it is to sell things, to communicate, instead of to lawyers whose job is to create highly accurate things that mean only what they mean and can be highly complex,” Mr. Polonetsky said.
The WPP divisions came back with several potential icons, which were presented to focus groups. The little “i,” which was dubbed “Power I,” did well, as did an asterisk that resembled a silhouette (“Asterisk Man”).
Icons that failed included one that looked like a “T” in a thought bubble. (“The focus group recipients just didn’t know what to make of this one,” Mr. Polonetsky said.)
The forum also tested some different phrases to go with the icon, like “Why this ad?”
“The feedback from focus group users was, don’t ask me to click something, tell me something and then I’ll decide to click,” Mr. Polonetsky said.
The group narrowed the icons down to Asterisk Man and Power I. Next, the WPP divisions, along with two professors, tested the icons and phrases with a panel of 2,604 Internet users to see if they remembered them and understood what they meant. Two of the phrases — “Why did I get this ad?” and “Interest-based ads” — did the best, while industry groups also liked the phrase “Ad choice,” which had done well in the focus groups.
Of course, without industry adoption, an icon is pretty meaningless. That is where the advertising groups come in.
Industry groups had already begun trying to avoid regulation and legislation when the F.T.C. report was issued last winter. The groups argued that legislation or regulation would move too slowly to reflect technological changes, and would choke Internet revenue.
There is no legal requirement that all the groups’ members, which include major online companies like Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, and traditional marketers like Procter & Gamble and General Electric, along with some ad networks and ad exchanges, adopt the icon, said Stuart P. Ingis, a partner at the Venable law firm and a lawyer for the coalition of trade groups. But, he said, he expects that within a couple of months, many of the companies will begin running it, and “you’ll wind up capturing a large percentage of the marketplace.”
The Interactive Advertising Bureau, which is involved in the self-regulation effort, has already begun an online campaign to explain the behavioral tactic to consumers. Mike Zaneis, vice president for public policy for the group, said the second phase of that campaign, beginning in a couple of months, would focus on what the Power I is and how consumers are supposed to interact with it.
And, similar to recycling’s role in environmental protection, Mr. Polonetsky is not expecting that his icon will immediately fix all the problems.
“This is not the full solution, but this moves the ball forward,” he said.
Stephanie Clifford, The New York Times. January 26, 2010
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