The long predicted deployment of targeted television advertising appears to be at hand. Earlier this month Cablevision announced they'll be rolling out a true targeted system, capable of individually selecting ads for each household, later this year to some 100,000 households, and plans to deploy to all their 3-million subscribers next year if it's a success. The pioneering cable company, who specified their own Sony digital STBs and VOD system years ahead of the crowd, and also launched a hi-def satellite-TV service (Voom), has a reputation for staying ahead of the curve.
I first wrote about targeted TV ads back in 1997, and I was hardly the first. Pundits have been predicting it for many years. Now that it's finally, really here, my opinion of it hasn't changed: There's danger here.
First there's the big brother "they're watching you" aspect. Technically, there's no need to watch what you're watching to do targeted ads -- the decision about who will see which commercial could be based entirely on credit reports, zip codes, etc. But since no one is limiting cable-TV companies (or TiVo, for that matter) in acquiring data about what their subscribers watch, why not do it?
Second, and more important, is the opportunity for political abuse. Already, those of us who live in heavily Democratic or Republican states in the U.S. feel a bit like we've missed the past two presidential campaigns, because most TV commercials appeared only in a small number of "battleground" states.
Targeted ads will give political candidates unprecedented opportunity to deliver completely different messages to different groups within the voting population. If you're black, for example, you might never know what the candidate is saying to the white audience. And vice versa with rich and poor, old and young, families and singles, urban and suburban, etc.
To discourage such abuse and promote fair campaigning, here's a simple proposal: Candidates who utilize targeted advertising technology should make ALL their TV commercials available for viewing on a public web site. And the fact that all ads can be seen there should be mentioned at the end of each targeted ad.
There may be inevitability to these long-anticipated targeted commercials, but that doesn't mean the public should welcome them with open arms. TV is changing very quickly, and though technological progress may drive this change, at the end of the day cable-TV -- at least in the U.S. -- is a regulated utility that cannot just do whatever it wants without public oversight.