Nov 5, 2013 ยท 2 minutes

Ads creep me out. They've gotten too good at following me around the Web. It's reached the point where I can write about a startup in the morning and see ads from the same company on Facebook by the afternoon. And, as if that weren't enough, this reminds me of just how much companies and governments can learn without my knowledge or consent. It's enough to make me consider wearing a tinfoil hat.

The problem is that the alternative -- seeing ads that are irrelevant to my interests -- isn't much more attractive. The algorithms that determine much of what I read, watch, or listen to have taught me to expect everything I encounter on the Web to revolve around my personality and past actions. (And here I am arguing that services like Instagram are the epitome of narcissism.) I don't click on very many ads now -- I would click on far fewer if they weren't personalized.

A new study from Zogby Analytics commissioned by the Digital Advertising Alliance suggests that offering personalized ads that are upfront about how they learned so much about their audience might offer the best of both worlds. Or, put another way, consumers might be able to monitor their privacy and have a decent ad experience too.

Some 51.3 percent of respondents said that they're more likely to interact with an ad that allowed them to opt-out of online tracking. Even more -- 73 percent -- said they would be more comfortable with such ads if they explained how they were being tracked. Letting people know they're being stalked might actually help advertisers that otherwise would have simply creeped everyone out.

Says DAA Managing Director Lou Mastria:

If you are collecting and using data in a transparent, responsible way, you can kind of have the ability to create personalized ads while giving consumers an element of transparency and control that they demand in this age. That doesn't mean that people will opt out of tracking. I think they understand that ads fund a lot of the services they use, and almost 50 percent say that they're not interested in paying for many services if the ads go away. What you get is a consumer who's very pragmatic.
Mastria says that some 27 million people have visited the DAA-run websites meant to educate consumers about online tracking. Unsurprisingly, people are interested in learning who's tracking them and why. Whether or not they then decide to opt out of online tracking varies from person to person, but Mastria says that number is far lower.

"In the past I think privacy has been portrayed as a very black-or-white picture, but that's not the way consumers act. It's a lot more of a mosaic, and they weigh practical things," Mastria says. "Privacy isn't a zero-sum game. I think you can give folks privacy control and transparency at the same time that you're giving them relevant ads."

People are frightened by the unknown. It's why so many of us are afraid of the dark. What this study suggests -- and what groups like the DAA hope -- is that shining a spotlight on the many things stalking us around the Web will make us more comfortable with knowing that we're being followed. Better the devil you know, and all that.

As for me, I think I'll get to work on that tinfoil hat.