Why Ad Opt Outs Are Bad For Everyone

Recent years have seen an explosion of concern regarding online privacy. From impersonation to data theft there are plenty of arguments for stronger protections. Rarely though, do we hear about the downsides of increased privacy. It’s time we dig into some of the negatives of ad related opt outs, specifically through the lens of advertising.

Before a crowd chases me down with torches and pitchforks, I fully respect an individual’s choice to increase their online privacy. In fact I advocate for that choice, especially when it comes to information related to health and finances. Still I can’t help but wonder if the reasons behind privacy are misguided when it comes to ad experiences. We’re told why we should protect ourselves, but not why, in certain cases, it might be more beneficial to opt-in to tracking.

With that in mind, here are three reasons why privacy related ad opt-outs are bad for everyone.

The Ads You See Become Less Relevant

One of the central things data collection is used for online is to inform ad targeting. For example, if Meta knows you have been looking at ads for a laptop, it’s more likely to serve you ads from computer brands. It might also select computer accessories to accompany your choice. Without that data passback, marketers lose the ability to understand what you’re looking for.

The result is a more broad approach to advertising, loosely based on the data that marketers gain either in store or through surveys. Targeting parameters then tend to defer to things like age, gender, and location targeting while making broad assumptions. This advertising also tends to be the more annoying kind. Who wants to see ads for new parents when they have no child of their own, or a sale on meat products when you’re vegetarian? As irritating as ads can be, they are much more palatable when they are relevant to you.  

You Will See More Ads Not Less

One of the central myths around ad related privacy is that opting out will reduce the amount of ads served. In fact, the opposite is likely to occur. As I’ve mentioned, the effect of less informed targeting is reduced quality of ads. Less quality ads often get less responses.

In the absence of effectively personalised ads, brands respond by placing more investment behind their campaigns. It’s a shot in the dark solution. Bigger, broader pushes to try and reach converting customers to meet business goals.

Some insider knowledge for you, it’s also cheaper to target a broad audience than a targeted one. This means brands can deliver more instances of generic ads, even when budgets remain the same.

This is a lose-lose for everyone. Users are more agitated with a higher frequency of ads, platforms are blamed for poor experiences, and marketers scramble to improve their insights.

Most Online Content is Funded by Ads

Like it or not, most of the content we access online is funded by advertising. Social media, news sites, sports rankings, and blogs. Access to all of this “free” content is only possible because of advertisements and the companies that run them.

The only other funding models involve either a subscription or a pay as you go. But as we know, once something is free it’s hard to get someone to start paying for it. Just look at how many newspapers now charge for access to their stories online. Subscriptions also have their limit, with 7 being the average number a household is willing to purchase. This leaves us with ads.

What does this have to do with privacy opt outs? Limited data leads to poor performance, which leads to disinvestment. The biggest risk of poor performing ads is that brands pull them. The newspaper industry has already experienced this first-hand.  Without funding, the sites we rely on for content, whether they be social, news, or entertainment will charge or shut down. Look at the example of Buzzfeed to see what happens when advertisers leave.

The Conundrum

What all of these boil down to is a conflict between privacy and quality.

Should we turn our data over just to keep these platforms alive and well? Absolutely not. It’s our choice to choose when and how much of ourselves we share online. But at the very least, we should be aware of the potential consequences of ad opt outs. In the end, we might find that basic tracking methods are worth toggling back on.