the cups blog


Two new CUPS studies on online behavioral advertising

I am pleased to announce that the Carnegie Mellon CUPS lab has published two new technical reports on user studies related to online behavioral advertising.


Title: Smart, Useful, Scary, Creepy: Perceptions of Online Behavioral Advertising
Authors: Blase Ur, Pedro G. Leon, Lorrie Faith Cranor, Richard Shay and Yang Wang
Publication Date: April 2, 2012


We report results of 48 semi-structured interviews about online behavioral advertising (OBA). We investigate non-technical users’ attitudes about OBA, then explain these attitudes by delving into users’ understanding of its practice. Participants were surprised that their browsing history is currently used to tailor advertisements. They were unable to determine accurately what information is collected during OBA, assuming that advertisers collect more information than they actually do. Participants also misunderstood the role of advertising networks, basing their opinions of an advertising company on that company’s non-advertising activities. Furthermore, participants were unfamiliar with advertising industry icons intended to notify them when ads are behaviorally targeted, often believing that these icons were intended for advertisers, not for users. While many participants felt tailored advertising could benefit them, existing notice and choice mechanisms are not effectively reaching users. Our results suggest new directions both for providing users with effective notice about OBA and for the design of usable privacy tools that help consumers express their preferences about online behavioral advertising.


Title: What Do Online Behavioral Advertising Disclosures Communicate to Users?
Authors: Pedro Giovanni Leon, Justin Cranshaw, Lorrie Faith Cranor, Jim Graves, Manoj Hastak, Blase Ur and Guzi Xu
Publication Date: April 2, 2012


Online Behavioral Advertising (OBA) is the practice of tailoring ads based on an individual’s online activities. We conducted a 1,505-participant online study to investigate Internet users’ perceptions of OBA disclosures while performing an online task. We tested icons, accompanying taglines, and landing pages intended to inform users about OBA and provide opt-out options; these were based on prior research or drawn from those currently in use. The icons, taglines, and landing pages fell short both in terms of notifying participants about OBA and clearly informing participants about their choices. Half of the participants remembered the ads they saw but only 12% correctly remembered the disclosure taglines attached to ads. The majority of participants mistakenly believed that ads would pop up if they clicked on disclosure icons and taglines, and more participants incorrectly thought that clicking the disclosures would let them purchase their own advertisements than correctly understood that they could then opt out of OBA. “Ad-Choices,” the tagline most commonly used by online advertisers, was particularly ineffective at communicating notice and choice. 45% of participants who saw “AdChoices” believed that it was intended to sell advertising space, while only 27% believed it was an avenue to stop tailored ads. A majority of participants mistakenly believed that opting out would stop all online tracking, not just tailored ads. We discuss challenges in crafting disclosures, and we provide suggestions for improvement.