Finely Targeted Advertising on Cable TV – Shades of Big Brother?

Devangshu Dutta

March 5, 2009

New York Times reports that Cablevision will provide targeted ads to selected homes based on a variety of criteria. (Cable Companies Target Commercials to Audience).

Department store pioneer John Wanamaker is reported to have said that half his advertising was wasted, but complained that he didn’t know which half it was.

With such targeted advertising on cable, he would have not only been able to tell which half was being wasted, but would have also been able to reschedule it to reach the right audience and avoid the waste. Cable companies with a good consumer database and analytics should be able to figure out who would be watching what shows, and target the ads accordingly (e.g. late-afternoon may trigger fast food ads in households with kids).

The article says: “…Cablevision will use its targeting technology to route ads to specific households based on data about income, ethnicity, gender or whether the homeowner has children or pets…viewers may not realize they are seeing ads different from a neighbor’s. But during the same show, a 50-something male may see an ad for, say, high-end speakers from Best Buy, while his neighbors with children may see one for a Best Buy video game.”

This could, of course, sound very creepy to an average customer who doesn’t want to know that he or she is being tracked.

If fact, the article quotes Marc Rotenberg, the executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington-based civil liberties group, as saying that the company needs to show that the information “can’t be reverse-engineered to find the names of individuals that were watching particular shows”.

But let’s face it, in today’s environment, if we’re online or on a communications device, there is a good chance that we can be / are being tracked.

We can expect the tug-of-war about consumer privacy to continue, but this is too seductive a tool for advertisers to ignore, especially in a downturn.