Horizon CDT Research Highlights

Research Highlights

Reimagining Digital Advertising: an ethnographic study of user responses to current and future digital advertising practices

  Joe Doherty-Bailey (2016 cohort)   www.nottingham.ac.uk/~psxjd4

Advertisers and ad platforms have built a digital advertising ecosystem which relies on the use of swathes of user data which it has failed to gain meaningful consent for access to [1][2][3][4], failed to reliably store in a secure manner [5], and failed to utilize in a way that results in well-received advertising [1][6] — a landscape culminating in what the World Economic Forum has referred to as a “crisis in trust” [7]. Perhaps the most compelling evidence of this crisis can be seen in the growing usage of adblocking software worldwide — according to PageFair’s 2017 annual Adblock report, 11% of the global internet population is now blocking advertising and there has been a 30% global growth in adblock usage from 2015 to 2016 [8]. And adblock usage is just one symptom of this broken relationship; a recent study by Ctrl+Shift has found that 26% of users in Britain have abandoned an online purchase due to concerns about their data privacy [9]. And the opacity from platforms regarding how exactly they use personal data to target ads has led to persistent fears from users that their microphone access might be being exploited for targeting data [10]. It seems, then, that this “crisis in trust” is not only causing the quantity of viable ad space available for trading to dwindle, but also affecting users’ willingness to make purchases online more broadly, making it a multifaceted threat to the digital economy. Users have been unceremoniously exploited for their personal data with one hand, and bombarded with adverts they often find irritating and intrusive with the other, leaving them with the impression that digital advertising is “ a little creepy... because I feel that I should get to decide what is going in and out of my computer.” [1]. If digital advertising is to mend its reputation with the users it relies upon, and salvage its future as the economic driving force behind most of the web, this relationship must be rebuilt — more fairly, carefully, and securely — from the ground up.

Where in this scenario is there a gap for research? Several initiatives have been undertaken to introduce novel, privacy-preserving technologies into the digital advertising ecosystem. And there have also been several user-centered studies conducted exploring how people respond to current advertising practices [1][6], although many of these are dating fast. What hasn’t been explored is how user responses to digital advertising might inform the design of future digital advertising technologies: this is the space I would like my research to occupy. In order to gain insight into what kind of technology could make a viable difference to this problem, I am beginning my data collection with a rich ethnography of user responses to current digital advertising practices. I hope to follow this initial study with a series of scenario-based interviews gathering user and industry responses to alternative future digital advertising practices. By building a rich corpus of data on stakeholder responses to both current and potential future digital advertising systems, I hope to inform the development of alternative structures which will begin to give users agency over the use of their personal data within the digital advertising ecosystem.


  1. Blase, U., Leon, P.G., Cranor, L.F., Shay, R., and Wang, Y. Smart, Useful, Scary, Creepy: Perceptions of Online Behavioral Advertising. In Proc. Symposium On Usable Privacy and Security (SOUPS) 2012, ACM Press. Washington.
  2. CMA (Competition and Markets Authority). The Commercial Use of Consumer Data. p.135. Crown Copyright 2015.
  3. Gilbert, J. iPhone App Privacy: Path, Facebook, Twitter and Apple under Scrutiny for Address Book Controversy, Huffington Post. Retrieved March 2nd, 2017.
  4. Cheng, J. How Apple Tracks Your Location Without Consent, and Why It Matters. Arstechnica. Retrieved March 2nd, 2017.
  5. List of Data Breaches, Wikipedia. February 27th, 2017. Retrieved March 2nd, 2017.
  6. Polonetsky, J., Tene, O. A Theory of Creepy: Technology, Privacy, and Shifting Social Norms. Yale Journal of Law and Technology, 16 (2), 59-102.
  7. Kearney, A.T. and World Economic Forum (WEF). Rethinking Personal Data: A New Lens for Strengthening Trust. World Economic Forum 2014. Retrieved March 2nd 2017.
  8. PageFair. The state of the blocked web 2017 Global Adblock Report. Retrieved March 2nd 2017.
  9. Brandt, L. The Bottom Line: Data Privacy. BBC Radio 4 Podcast. February 18th 2016. Retrieved March 2nd 2017. 19:30 - 20:00.
  10. Hern, A. Facebook denies eavesdropping on conversations to target ads, again, The Guardian. Retreived March 8th 2017.

This author is supported by the Horizon Centre for Doctoral Training at the University of Nottingham (RCUK Grant No. EP/L015463/1) and The Internet Society.