Is Targeted Advertising an Invasion of Privacy?

Kelsey McKeon

Online ad blockers offer users more control over their browsing experience online. People who use ad blockers are concerned about their online privacy; 63% say that targeted ads that incorporate personal data are an invasion of privacy. Businesses that integrate consumer data in their advertising strategies could face consequences, with 45% of ad blocker users saying they will avoid companies that target them with ads.

Ad blocker users represent mounting frustrations about invasive advertising. They desire more control over their experience browsing online, and will take steps to eliminate intrusive advertising, regardless of the impact on businesses.

Some web browsers like Mozilla have even shifted to paid, ad-free models, offering some relief for businesses that depend on advertising revenue.

Ad blocker users’ frustration with advertising, however, also extends to how their data is collected to create targeted advertisements.

Businesses must be mindful of how they collect user data for their websites and advertising and adjust their strategy to adapt to users’ concerns about online privacy.

Visual Objects surveyed 500 people who use ad blockers in the U.S. to learn how their feelings about online privacy affect businesses’ bottom line. 

This article helps companies understand consumer sentiment about data privacy and identify ways to build trust with an ad-fatigued audience.

Our Findings

  • Nearly two-thirds of ad blocker users (63%) say that targeted ads that incorporate personal data feel like an invasion of privacy, which contradicts the opinion of advertisers, who claim that data collection makes customers’ ad experience feel more useful.
  • Almost half of people using ad blockers (45%) will avoid a company that targets them with ads. Older generations are more likely to avoid these companies because they are more concerned about data breaches and online security.
  • Almost half of Generation Xers surveyed (47%) are likely to pay for an ad-free internet experience. This generation is tech-savvy and unwilling to tolerate intrusive ads, according to experts.
  • Most baby boomers (72%) believe data collection for advertising purposes is an invasion of privacy. Older internet users are not digital natives and are more skeptical of online advertising.
  • Only 28% percent of ad blocker users plan to download privacy extensions in 2019 despite their strong feelings against data collection.

Most Ad Blocker Users Say Targeted Ads Invade Privacy

Online ads that are targeted based on user data, like browsing history and past purchases, are the subject of debate among internet users.  Ad blocker users are uncomfortable with data collection, but many may not realize that ad blockers don’t necessarily hide their personal data.

Some people believe that targeted advertisements make ad experiences more useful. Most people who use ad blockers (63%), however, feel that targeted ads are an invasion of privacy.

graph showing how ad blocker users feel about targeted ads

Only 20% of ad blocker users feel targeted ads make for a personalized and useful experience and 17% had no opinion.

Ad blocker users may think that blocking ads keeps their data safe. Ad blockers prevent users from seeing ads, but not every ad blocker extension stops data from being collected.

Ad blocker users who are concerned about online privacy should investigate if their data is actually being protected.

Ad blockers like AdBlock Plus include features that block companies from following online activity. Browsers like Firefox and Google Chrome also give users the option to disable tracking.

Google Chrome’s privacy settings, shown below, allow users to send a “Do Not Track” request when they browse online, which signals to websites that they should not collect data on the specific user.

google chrome do not track privacy settings

Source: Google Chrome

Opting not to be tracked gives users some control over their browsing experience, but according to MakeUseOf, an online publication that produces guides for software and apps around the web, Do Not Track features are not enforced by the independent Federal Trade Commission. Instead, they are enforced by a group of internet companies that have a vested interest in collecting data from users, so the features may not fully protect online privacy.

Russell Volk, a RE/MAX real estate agent in Bucks County, Penn., says his ad blocker lacks a feature for blocking cookies, which means the ad blocker doesn’t prevent websites from tracking his activity across the web.

“I don't use my ad blocker to block cookies because I don't think that option exists in my ad blocker,” Volk said. “I'm definitely concerned about the privacy issue and who my data is being shared with. I know I'm definitely taking a risk with using only an ad blocker, but I wish there was a better solution.”

Despite using ad blockers, Volk remains concerned about who has access to his data.

Ad blockers can benefit anyone who wants to protect their privacy beyond their internet browsers’ capabilities, but some ad blockers’ privacy capabilities are limited.

Half of Ad-Blocker Users Will Avoid Websites that Target Them With Ads

Ad blocker users express discomfort with targeted ads, which can impact their purchasing decisions. Businesses should avoid creating ads that use highly specific personal information and offer users the option to edit or remove their data to build trust.

Almost half of people (45%) say they are likely to stop using a company’s website that targets them with highly personalized ads.

graph showing likelihood of avoiding websites because of ad targeting

More than one-third of ad blocker users (35%) say they are neither likely nor unlikely to stop using a company website after being targeted with ads, and 20% say they are unlikely to stop using a website that targets them.

Fewer ad blocker users will visit websites that target them with ads, which shows that highly-personalized ads are not providing a more useful experience for certain users.

Advertisers argue that targeted advertisements make for a more personalized and useful browsing experience. People who use ad blockers, however, disagree because of their desire for control and privacy in their browsing experience.

To avoid alienating ad blocker users, businesses must be mindful of how they collect user data on their websites and how they implement that data in their advertising.

Ads that reflect personal information about a user, such as age, marital status, or number of children, can be particularly invasive.

Tim Smith is director of communications and media planning at IPNY, an advertising and marketing agency in New York. He argues that data collection in advertising can cross a line if marketers aren’t careful.

“I think if ads get too personal that’s kind of taboo,” Smith said. “For example, if some brand knows my age and sends me something that has my exact age in it, that’s over the line unless I have a great relationship with that brand.”

Companies could alienate users who are unfamiliar with their brand if they show an advertisement that reflects data collection, such as an ad for strollers to an expecting mother.

Businesses Should Give Users Access to Their Collected Data

Data collection results in personas, or a character representing a user type, that companies use to market to consumers. Businesses should give users access to these personas and allow them to remove information if desired.

Instagram collects users’ ad interests based on the browsing activity, clicks, and engagements users have on the platform.

instagram ads interests

Source: Instagram

In the image above, Instagram lists the users’ “Ads Interests.” This particular user likely receives ads for clothing, travel, and fitness based on these interests Instagram has collected from likes, shares, and posts.

Instagram offers ways for users to download all of the information Instagram collects. According to CNBC, Instagram users can access their entire history on the platform in the Privacy and Security settings, shown below.

instagram data download image

Source: CNBC

The image above shows a notification that Instagram has emailed the users’ data download directly. Instagram gives users the option to delete their data, but only if they delete their account permanently.

Businesses that collect personal information can build trust with their users by allowing them to view their collected data and remove it if they desire.

Younger Generations Are More Likely to Pay for Ad-Free Browsing

Paying for ad-free browsing is one solution to off-putting, targeted advertising, but ad blocker users are divided on paying for an ad-free experience online. Millennials and Gen Xers are more likely to pay for an ad-free browsing experience than baby boomers.

Almost half of millennials (41%) and Generation Xers (47%) are likely to pay to browse without ads.

graph showing if generations will pay for ad free browsing

By contrast, only 29% of baby boomers say they are likely to pay for an ad-free browsing experience.

Younger users are digital natives who are more likely to be aware of ad-free browsing options. Experts say younger generations also have higher expectations for user experience when browsing online.

Kyle Deming, founder at Chicago web services firm Wojo Design, said that paid ad-free options might grow in popularity as people realize the cost of ad blockers on content creators. U.S. publishers reported losses of $15.8 billion in annual revenue in 2017 due to ad blockers, according to MediaPost.

This lost revenue has led some publishers and browsers to alter their advertising models and allow users to pay with their own funds instead of data.

Businesses will be able to redirect the money they might have lost from ad blocker users into premium subscriptions.

“It’s helpful to have an alternative option that allows people to avoid ads when they’ve become a premium subscriber,” Deming said. “You establish, in the client’s mind, the value of having an ad-free experience. It helps them understand the natural consequence of using an ad blocker – creators will need to charge for the content.”

Ad-free browsers provide an alternative option for people who use ad blockers for greater control over their browsing experience while still supporting their chosen businesses and publishers. 

Web Browsers Are Pivoting Towards Paid, Ad-Free Experiences

Some web browsers place greater emphasis on online privacy than others.

Brave is an ad-free web browser created by Brendan Eich, former chief executive officer of Mozilla. Its technology blocks ads and cookie trackers for an optimized, private browsing experience.

The image below shows a sample of Brave’s private browsing offerings.

Brave website blocking tracking software

Source: Brave

In the example above, Brave shows its privacy tool at work on Buzzfeed, breaking down the different cookie tracking tools the technology successfully blocks.

Duke Taber is the owner and managing editor of Easy Church Tech, a content website that helps churches set up their technology. He’s used the Brave browser for two years.

Taber writes blog content on different topics and uses the Brave browser to avoid seeing retargeted ads on those topics. Brave blocks retargeting pixels, which track user behavior across the web after visiting a particular website.

“One benefit [of Brave] is that I don't have advertisements following me around because of retargeting pixels,” Taber said. “That is why I use it when I am researching. Just because I am researching a topic, doesn't mean I am personally interested in that topic.”

Taber wants to avoid ads based on his past research, so he invests in a Brave browser to block tracking online.

Alternative browsers like Brave exist for consumers willing to pay content creators to browse ad-free. Ad-free browsers can also satisfy consumers’ desire for better privacy protections.

Baby Boomers Are More Concerned About Data Privacy and Advertising

Certain generations are more concerned about online privacy. Baby boomers who use ad blockers see online ads generated by data targeting as invasive, more so than younger generations.

Almost three-quarters of baby boomers (72%) say that data collection from ads feels like an invasion of privacy.

graph showing how baby boomers feel about online data collection

Almost two-thirds of Generation X ad blocker users (64%) and 58% of millennials find data collection for advertising invasive.

Many millennials grew up in the internet age, sharing personal information online. Therefore, they feel less of a need for privacy online.

“I think younger people tend to be less threatened by data collection because it’s what they’ve known,” Smith said. “They’ve grown up with data breaches and always being connected and online.”

Baby boomers, on the other hand, are less inclined to exchange personal information with brands that they do not have a relationship with, according to Smith.

“Older generations have a lot more to lose if their privacy gets invaded and their data gets misused,” Smith said.

To avoid alienating baby boomers, brands should build relationships with their audience by offering valuable content that doesn’t require extreme levels of personalization.

Companies can add value for audiences by creating free, original content that doesn’t require users to submit personal information to access.

SEO company Moz offers company blogs and video content without requiring users to exchange their email address or other personal information.

Moz blog free content

Source: Moz Blog

Readers can click on the “Read this post” button and navigate directly to Moz’s content. The website may deploy a pop-up to prompt users to enter an email address and subscribe to more offerings, but that does not prevent users from accessing valuable content.

Rachel Cunningham is the content marketing director at Bop Design, a web design company in San Diego. She says that it is possible for businesses to collect data ethically from their users to better the overall website user experience.

“Be explicit about what data you are collecting, why, and what you plan to do with it,” Cunningham said. “If you plan on using cookies to enhance the user’s experience, tell them. If you are collecting their information to sign them up for an e-newsletter, make sure it’s clear that you are doing so. It’s always best to give the consumer the information they need to make an informed decision.”

Cunningham said that as long as businesses communicate how users’ data is being used and why, it can help businesses strike a balance between providing a personalized online experience and collecting data unethically.

By empowering users with information and transparency, companies can create authentic experiences based on user preference rather than invasive marketing tactics.

Only One-Quarter of Ad Blocker Users Plan to Download Privacy Extensions

Browser privacy extensions such as Privacy Badger and Ghostery are one way users can take ownership of their data, but many ad blocker users aren’t taking advantage of them.

Despite strong feelings about targeted ads, only 28% of people who use ad blockers plan to download privacy extensions in the next year.

28 percent of people who use ad blockers will download privacy extensions in the next year

This could be because many users are unaware of the different privacy extension options.

Privacy Badger, a browser extension produced by digital privacy nonprofit the Electronic Frontier Foundation, was designed to satisfy the need for a single extension that blocks trackers and ads that “violate user consent.”

The image below shows the Privacy Badger extension at work on The White House’s website. The extension uses colors to alert users to aspects of the website that track their behavior.

Privacy Badger extension

Source: Google Chrome Extension Store

Once Privacy Badger presents users with each tracker on a particular website, it gives users options for handling the trackers, including allowing or blocking them.

Volk plans to download privacy extensions in the near future to keep his browsing history safe from advertisers.

“I absolutely plan on downloading a privacy extension for my Chrome browser since I don't want to be secretly tracked around the internet,” Volk said. “I'm currently looking into several extensions and prevention of cookie tracking is definitely the main functionality I'm focusing on.”

In his privacy extension, Volk wants a toll that blocks cookie tracking and supplements his ad blocker’s capabilities.

Privacy browser extensions fill in the functional gaps that some ad blockers have, but few ad blocker users plan to download these extensions in 2019.

Businesses Should Be Transparent About Data Collection to Combat Privacy Concerns

As ad blockers become more popular, businesses must understand how users interact with online advertising. A majority of people who use ad blockers say that targeted ads are an invasion of privacy.

Our survey shows that people who use ad blockers will act on this discomfort, with 45% of users saying they will avoid websites that target them with highly personalized ads.

Ad-free browsing is a potential solution to the privacy problem. Millennials and Generation Xers are more likely to pay for ad-free browsing than baby boomers, but baby boomers feel most threatened by targeted advertising.

Despite respondents’ concerns about online privacy, only 28% plan to download browser extensions specifically focused on protecting privacy.

Businesses must adapt to using user data responsibly, or they risk alienating ad-fatigued consumers who are selective with their personal information.

About the Survey

Visual Objects surveyed 500 people from the U.S. who use ad blockers when browsing online.

Sixty-five percent (65%) are female, and 35% are male.

Survey respondents varied in age: 18% of respondents are 13-24; 30% are 25-34; 17% are 35-44; 15% are 45-54; 12% are 55-64; and 8% are 65 or older.

Respondents are from the Midwest (22%), Northeast (16%), South (36%), and West (23%).


Kelsey McKeon

Senior Content Writer
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