RIP surveillance advertising — you won’t be missed

RIP surveillance advertising — you won’t be missed


Individual-level targeting might seem like the best option, but change is inevitably coming and clinging to the past will only become more costly, complex and risky for advertisers.

Since the proliferation of the cookie in 1997 and until the privacy clampdown that began with GDPR, digital advertising has relentlessly pursued consumer data. The backlash against invasive targeting and commoditised personal identification all pointed to the cookie’s final demise.

But now that Google has delayed its cookie deprecation for a third time, what’s next?

Digital advertising once again finds itself at a familiar fork in the road. Advertisers can choose to follow the surveillance path as long as it remains open, skirting the edge of privacy law in a bid to maintain individual-level targeting.

Or they can decide that walking that same road is a lot of work for little pay-off and start exploring privacy-first alternatives.

Shifting goalposts

As with previous delays, Google’s deferral of third-party cookie’s deprecation has created a sense of upheaval. Less than six months ago, 60% of businesses were gripped by concern about how third-party cookie deprecation would impact their performance and marketing attention was focused on seizing new targeting approaches and data collection methods.

Now, organisations across the digital ecosystem find themselves with an extended deadline, while marketers face the potential need to overhaul near-term strategies.

Or do they? The reality is that shifting the cookie countdown to 2025 hasn’t changed the lay of the land and the growing necessity for a new paradigm in digital advertising’s approach to data.

Tracking driven by third-party cookies remains subject to limitations that make it unviable in many key environments. Firefox’s Total Cookie Protection has confined cookie scope to sites that were created since April 2023, building on its previous list-based blocking of third-party trackers. Apple, meanwhile, is still blocking cookies by default in Safari, as well as requiring explicit opt-ins from app users for data collection and tracking.

Methods that enable similar behaviour-based targeting to those that utilise cookies are also subject to drawbacks, including alternative identifiers. Solutions that generate hashed IDs using personally identifiable information — such as email and IP addresses — rely on gaining user consent for data use, meaning their scalability is inevitably limited.

Options for plugging holes in this data are also imperfect. Probabilistic modelling of data from a small pool of consenting users comes at a high price, limited small sample sizes create “fuzziness” in data and interoperability initiatives raise the risk of data leakage and deviation from the spirit of data consent policies. In other words, fingerprinting in all but name.

Replicating surveillance advertising is a dead end

Advertisers that are stuck in the belief that consistent relevance can only be achieved by tying ads to individuals are reliant on an adjusted version of the status quo, hoovering up invasive third-party cookies wherever their use is permitted and switching between a jumble of alternative IDs in spaces where it isn’t.

Unfortunately for those clinging to surveillance advertising, this route leads to a cliff edge and brings a host of issues that jeopardise long-term success. Anchoring ads to whichever personal details can be patched together from various touchpoints results in a fragmented overall experience for consumers, in addition to regular targeting misfires.

By committing to this route amid persistently high anxiety about data privacy among consumers, companies electing to continue using practices that impinge on privacy risk losing vital trust and damaging the already shaky reputation that digital advertising has with the public and regulators.

Google itself is hammering nails in the coffin, clearly stating that while a delay has become unavoidable due to the challenges of accommodating “divergent” feedback, work on an eventual final cut is pressing ahead.

The more the industry attempts to keep surveillance advertising alive, the more it resembles a very expensive, stitched-together Frankenstein’s monster. No matter how it’s spruced up, it will never be received well by the wider public.

Contextual leads to long-term stability

The premise of contextual targeting is grounded in common sense and the established relationship that consumers expect between advertising and content. Like traditional print-based efforts, campaigns aim to align ads with their surrounding content, making logical connections between who is likely to engage with that content and their characteristics.

After being shunted into the background when cookie-driven hyper-personalisation stole the show, contextual approaches are now set for an enduring role in the future of advertising. In their revitalised modern iteration, tools can offer both scale and precision in audience targeting, without the need for individual data.

Scale being a selling point might surprise those used to legacy versions of contextual advertising that relied on laborious manual tagging of content to form contextual categories. Now, with AI-powered solutions that can accurately interpret the semantics, sentiment and even visual content of media, contextual categorisation is entirely automated, limited only by whether or not a publisher chooses to activate it.

As for precision — typically surveillance advertising’s trump card — contextual solutions layer in an array of anonymous signals to reveal audience alignment. By feeding the flow of traffic within and between websites into a neural network, we can see how audience interests overlap with one another. This means that, for example, sports fans can be targeted across the other content they consume, whether that’s holiday guides, recipes or health and fitness.

The machine-learning algorithms that power modern contextual solutions are constantly improving, as years of historic data refine future categorisation decisions. Best yet, all the data is entirely anonymous, putting contextual advertising beyond reproach of ever-evolving privacy and data protection laws.

In these final days of the surveillance era — with regulation and privacy-minded tech forces steadily shutting down each avenue of personal data collection and identification — digital advertising is in desperate need of stability. Individual-level targeting might feel familiar, but change is coming, whether advertisers want it to or not, and clinging to the past will only become more costly, complex and risky.

Contextual approaches deliver effective and sustainable advertising that is aligned with the emerging privacy-first status quo. Start on the contextual road today and you could still be walking along it decades from now.

Marko Johns squareMarko Johns is UK managing director and international head of agency at Seedtag

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