Saturday, August 30, 2008


There's a great piece in today's Washington Post that uncovers a fascinating -- and curiously undercovered, given the attention it's been getting in our nation's capital -- little secret of this year's Presidential election: Both campaigns are using behavioral targeting online to find their best potential voters.

Post reporter Peter Whoriskey says that using behavioral marketing techniques to locate and deliver ads to voters identified based on their Web-consumption habits "is one of the defining aspects of the 2008 presidential campaign."

Among the Web publishers that say they have worked with both campaigns are Yahoo! and Specific Media.

The Whoriskey piece, although concise, is unusually sophisticated -- certainly relative to most reporting on the subject, which tends to rehash charges by advertising opponents, uncritically and without evidence, that online targeting compromises users' privacy. The Post, by contrast, includes some facts generally ignored by critics:
  • Behavioral targeting "is common in commercial marketing." (Not noted in the piece is the fact that, under the term "occasion-based marketing," behavioral targeting has been employed for years by consumer marketers.)
  • Determining voters' preferences through behavioral and other forms of analysis "has long been part of the science of political marketing."
  • Online behavioral marketing is "less intrusive" than traditional direct marketing because "the name and home address of the target is unnecessary."
The U.S. Congress has held four hearings during the past few months devoted entirely or in part to investigating whether behavioral targeting compromises Web users' privacy. No harm has been shown from the practice by any witnesses, in no small part because the technique does not employ identifying data. But activists -- many of whom have a long history opposing marketing in the offline world -- are seeking regulations that would cover both personal data and impersonal information with the same broad, protective brush.

Now that both parties' Presidential campaigns have been shown to be using these highly effective and efficient marketing technologies, it will be interesting to see whether more reporting will uncover how many members of Congress are following suit.

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