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Tailored online ads for political candidates could backfire, survey suggests

In both politics and commerce, marketers have never had more tools for tailoring advertising to people based on their interests. But a new study from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania suggests that they might want to consider their options carefully.

The report found that 86 percent of respondents did not want political ads tailored to their interests and that 61 percent did not want similarly tailored ads for products and services.

When asked how the use of tailored ads might affect their decision to vote for a certain candidate, respondents reacted most strongly to tailored ads in social media, suggesting that using Facebook’s (s fb) sponsored stories for political candidates could potentially backfire.

According to the survey, more than 70 percent of respondents said the likelihood that they’d vote for a candidate they support would decrease if they learned that the candidate used Facebook to send ads to the friends of a person who “likes” the candidate’s Facebook page. (Fifty percent said the likelihood would decrease “a lot”; 22 percent said it would decrease “somewhat.”) That compares to 64 percent of Americans who said the likelihood of voting for a candidate they support would decrease if they learned the candidate’s campaign bought information about their online activities, as well as their neighbors’ web activities, to send them different political messages.

Eighty-five percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that they would be angry if they discovered that Facebook (s FB) was surfacing ads for political candidates based on information they thought they had made private.

Using some level of personal information to target voters isn’t new, but online tools have given political campaigns the ability to target with even more granularity, by zip codes, mobile devices, social behavior, interests and more. Television advertising still dwarfs digital advertising, but media research firm Borrell Associates estimates that political campaigns will spend $160 million on online messaging in the 2012 election season, up from $22.2 million in 2008.

Joseph Turow, professor at the Annenberg School who led the study, said he surveyed consumers’ opinions on targeted advertising in a 2009 study and saw similar results. Then, as now, more than 60 percent of consumers said they didn’t want to be shown ads tailored to their interests, although in 2009, the percentage was 66 percent versus 61 percent in this year’s survey.

“It shows that things haven’t really changed, people are still reacting to the idea of tailored ads,” he said. “They know it goes on, they can’t do anything about it. But that doesn’t mean that they like it or think it isn’t wrong.”

The consumer response to tailored ads in politics is particularly strong, he proposed, because people want to feel like they’re a part of the larger society and don’t want advertisers shaping their political perspectives for them.

A survey released earlier this month by Bizrate Insights claimed that most online shoppers feel neutral or positive about online behavioral retargeting (in which ads are targeted based on the websites a consumer has visited online), and that one in four online buyers actually say they “like” retargeting. But that survey only queried a pool of consumers who opted into the online survey after making a purchase and aren’t necessarily representative of all Web users.

The Annenberg study was conducted via telephone by Princeton Survey Research Associates and included more than 1,500 English and Spanish speaking adult Internet users in the U.S.

(Image by Augusto Cabral via Shutterstock.)