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13 November 2019

Opting out of personalized ads: what motivates people to take action?

When you search the internet for a new jacket, chances are that you will find the same jacket later in an advertisement on another website. Companies use data of internet users to personalize advertising, but are obliged to be transparent about this and give options to avoid it. A study in Cyberpsychology investigates why and when consumers choose to ‘opt out’ of personalized services. It seems that increasing technical knowledge about personalization is not the way to empower consumers.

Take aways

  • Purely informing consumers about how companies collect and use their data to personalize the ads they get to see online does not motivate them to opt-out of these personalized services.
  • Policy makers who want to empower consumers to protect themselves on the internet by opting-out of personalized services should:
    • make them aware of the threats they face online when their data is collected and used;
    • teach them only data protection strategies that people believe are effective in countering these threats.

Study information

  • Who?

    425 participants (mean age: 48, 50% female)

  • Where?

    The Netherlands

  • How?

    Participants watched either a video that explained the technical process of how Google collects personal data and uses it for personalized advertising, or a video with a short general description of what online personalization is. Then, they answered questions, among others, about how severe they think it is that companies use their online data for personalization purposes, their privacy concerns and how they feel about personalized advertising. Afterwards, participants received information about the opt-out function of Google and were asked if they intended to use this function and how effective they perceived this to be in stopping the use of their data. The researchers could track the actual online behavior of participants using a ‘plug in’ that participants previously had installed on their computers.

Facts and findings

  • Interestingly, the participants who watched the video with technical information about Google’s personalization process were less motivated and less likely to opt-out from personalized advertising than the participants who watched the video with a short general description of online personalization.
  • A possible explanation for this is that participants felt more safe after receiving more specific information on Google’s personalization practices or simply denied the issue to protect themselves from feeling fear.
  • Participants who thought data usage was severe and that opting out was effective in protecting their personal data, were more motivated to opt-out.
  • Participants who were positive about online personalization and were confident that they could protect their personal information, were less motivated to opt-out.
  • The motivation to opt-out strongly drove actual behavior.