In Defense of Targeted TV Ads

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This week we learned that cable and satellite TV companies are beginning to show targeted advertisements to viewers. That is, they can beam custom-tailored commercials to individual households even if they’re tuned to the same program.

For example, a 17-year-old male watching Watson on Jeopardy! might get a commercial for the Xbox, while at the same time a well-to-do 55-year-old female might get an ad for a Volvo. Of course, in order to accomplish this, the cable company has to know the vital stats of who’s watching TV.

Creepy, right? Well, maybe not. Let’s look at the pluses and minuses.

First the pros:

  • Less Annoying Commercials – TV ads today are a lot like spam. They’re one-size fits all and sent out to everyone regardless of their tastes or preferences. If you’re watching sports, you’re going to get a lot of truck and lite beer ads, even if you’re not in the market for those products. That can make commercial breaks intolerable. According to the Wall Street Journal, “A test of targeted TV ads by Comcast in 2009 found that homes receiving targeted advertising tuned away from the commercials 32% less of the time than homes that received non-targeted ads.” Said another way, viewers found targeted commercials 32% less annoying!
  • More Free Content – Reading this blog is free to you, and so is watching 30 Rock. That’s because content creators make money through advertising. Advertisers are willing to pay more for ads if they know they’re reaching potential customers, and that means creators can continue to offer great free content to viewers. (Think Hulu.) Without advertising, there would likely be less content, and what content was available might not be free to consumers. (Think iTunes Store.)

Now the cons:

  • It Feels Creepy – To serve you up targeted ads, TV providers will have to know quite a bit about you, including your age and sex, what shows you like, and other personal information. But while that may feel a bit off-putting, we have to ask ourselves, what exactly is the harm? The data is anonymous, meaning that advertisers don’t know who exactly is watching, only that he is male, 35, watches Mythbusters and subscribes to TIME magazine. That could be anyone. (O.K., that’s me.) Advertisers aren’t going to do anything with that info besides show you products you might like. Still too creepy for you? You can call your TV provider and opt-out of targeted advertising.

While our first instinct may be to have a negative gut reaction to the idea of advertisers knowing information about us, it’s hard to pinpoint the real harm. And that gut reaction often leads us to overlook the benefits: Less annoying ads, more free content, maybe even useful information about products in which we’re actually interested. On net, it may be worth it.

Jerry Brito is a contributor to TIME. Find him on Twitter at @jerrybrito. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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