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UT Research: Nancy Brinson Investigates the Privacy Paradox and Quantified Self

Personalized advertisements can be great tools that allow marketers to reach their most favorable consumers. Marketers get access to their prime target market and consumers get to see advertisements that are the most relevant to their wants and needs. But what happens when personalized advertisements feel like they’re getting a little too invasive? Where do consumers draw the line between the benefits and drawbacks? That’s what Ph.D. student, Nancy Brinson, wants to uncover in her doctoral research and upcoming dissertation.

Brinson joined the UT Advertising Ph.D. program after a phenomenal 25-year career managing the media departments for top-notch ad agencies like DDB, Tracy Locke, and Ogilvy & Mather. During her time at these agencies, she saw how media communication shifted from mass broadcasting controlled by a select number of producers to consumers creating and controlling their own content. These consumers are taking an increasingly active role when reacting to the messages the media show them, demanding transparency, accountability, and representation. This shift in behavior is the focus of Brinson’s research, which hopes to examine personalization effects across multiple platforms and in multiple contexts to understand how increasingly personalized digital advertising messages impact audience perceptions and avoidance behavior.

Brinson laid out all of her previous research and where she hopes to take it to an intimate group of eight during a Jesse H. Jones Luncheon Lecture series. She began by discussing what started her journey to “understand the full spectrum of motivations driving consumers’ evolving media usage and information sharing behaviors in conjunction with examining the related effects on society.” The first main driver was her interest in the data correlation versus causation mindset. She noticed a growing gap between practice and theory caused by big data, where practitioners believe that reasons behind correlations aren’t that important, and that “getting bogged down in an endless search for causal explanations will only prevent clients from reaping all of the data’s rewards.” Her second driver was her interest in the privacy paradox, which states that consumers are concerned about their information privacy, but most of them freely share their information online. Brinson wants to take this information and study how the uses & gratifications and communication privacy management fit together.

Brinson’s first published study, “Living in a Big Data World: Predicting Mobile Commerce Activity Through Privacy Concerns,” looked at the effect of privacy concerns on mobile e-commerce activity. She discussed the privacy paradox, which details how 75% of consumers share personal data despite reporting concerns about online information tracking, privacy of their mobile communications, and personalized advertising. They continue to share this information because they enjoy the incentives (free content, lower prices, etc.). They don’t realize the data is being collected and aggregated, and they feel that it’s simply the price you pay when owning new technology. Brinson’s study showed that consumers desire the information, conveniences, and incentives offered by personalized ads on mobile devices, but had insufficient awareness about mobile data collection practices. It also showed that users are sensitive about unauthorized access and the use of personal data, so that trust in an online partner is crucial.

Brinson’s second study, “Juxtaposing the Persuasion Knowledge Model and Privacy Paradox: an Experimental Look at Ad Personalization, Public Policy and Public Understanding,” looked further into the privacy paradox and the AdChoices Icon (which allows consumers to view how advertisers are using their information). It builds on the previous study and delves specifically into key drivers contributing to the privacy paradox and defining the awareness and impact of the AdChoices Icon. She discusses the persuasion knowledge model and mentions that “advancing technology has not only enhanced the agent’s ability to obtain increasingly personalized knowledge about target audiences, but has also triggered new coping behaviors by consumers.” This experiment tested attitudes towards an advertisement, based upon knowledge of the AdChoices Icon, perceived risk, perceived benefits, trust, and message credibility. The results showed that there is minimal awareness of the AdChoices Icon and that presence of the icon increased the attitude towards the ad as long as the recipient was knowledgeable of its meaning.

Brinson’s third study, “Privacy and the Quantified Self: An Examination of Trust, Attitude Toward Personalized Advertising and Outcome Expectancies,” examined users’ perceptions of the benefits and risks of wearable fitness devices as well as their receptivity to advertising messages based on their personal health data. This study revealed that the privacy policies related to data collection and the aggregation of Quantified Self (QS) data are not well understood. It also showed that increasing trust will result in improved attitudes towards personalized advertising.

With all this research behind her, Brinson looks towards the future, specifically at emerging devices in the Internet of Things, vulnerable populations (children), and the impact of pending data collection policies. Her dissertation topic is titled, “Kid Power or Exploitation? Examining the impact of quantified self-technologies and personal health & fitness data collection on youth populations.” The environment seems ripe for this type of study because 1/3 of U.S. youth (ages 12-19) are overweight or obese while at the same time 73% of U.S. youth (13-17) have a smartphone, which feature pre-installed fitness tracking applications. The purpose of this study is to examine youth attitudes, behaviors, and intended / unintended consequences of equipping youth with health trackers. There is limited research on the risks and benefits of QS health and fitness trackers on youth populations and Brinson wants to help resolve that. She will be formally defending this proposal in a couple of weeks and will start data collection in December.

After Nancy finishes up her doctorate here at UT, she’ll be heading to the University of Alabama as an Assistant Professor in Advertising and PR, where she will be part of the Communication and Information School.