Critiquing ITSA’s Pro-Adware Policy

These days, few advertisers defend “adware” advertising. It seems the world has largely noticed: Consumers hate adware-delivered popup ads. It’s rare that any consumer intentionally installs adware with an accurate understanding of what lies ahead. Since consumers don’t want adware, adware vendors get onto users’ computers by trickery and deception, without appropriate disclosures and informed consent. Problems plague even those vendors that claim to have reformed. (Recall Claria soliciting installations through other vendors nonconsensually-installed spyware and removing important phrases from its disclosures.)

Despite the rising backlash against adware, the Interactive Travel Services Association recently offered a rare contrary view. In its Statement Regarding the Use of Marketing Software Applications (PDF), ITSA effectively endorsed adware. ITSA claims adware “can be useful to many consumers because it provides timely, relevant and money-saving information.” Despite the bad consumer experience and lousy value proposition, ITSA goes on to say adware advertising is just fine, under strikingly vague and weak conditions.

My challenge to ITSA executives: Install Direct Revenue “adware” on your PCs for a month. Then report how much time and money you save.

I don’t understand why ITSA published these guidelines. Certainly I see why ITSA members want to discuss the problem of adware, and why they want to come to a joint decision on stopping bad advertising practices. After all, Expedia would understandably hesitate to stop targeting (say) Orbitz, if there was reason to worry Orbitz would keep running ads that target Expedia. This prisoner’s-dilemma problem calls for the intervention of a trade association, and ITSA seems a natural choice. But the right result from such intervention is to prohibit these bad practices and enforce members’ future compliance — not to sugar-coat the problem.

ITSA members aren’t gaining anything from adware. To the contrary, they pay big fees to adware vendors, but they’re often just trading customers who are already at ITSA member sites. Expedia would be better served by a policy that prevents Orbitz and Travelocity from stealing its traffic, in exchange for a reciprocal promise that Expedia will behave accordingly. Such a policy would serve consumers too, by reducing the funding available to adware vendors and limiting their incentives to sneak onto users’ PCs. That’s the approach I’d like to see from ITSA.

If ITSA is up for a challenge, it could focus on getting travel vendors’ ads out of adware — starting with its own members. ITSA member Cendant owns Cheap Tickets, Howard Johnson, and Super 8 — all three of which are still advertising with Direct Revenue. So is Travelocity. (All confirmed just yesterday, March 30.) Yesterday I also saw Cendant’s Budget Rent A Car still advertising with 180solutions, and Travelocity and Orbitz advertising with Hotbar. Is this what the new ITSA policy will bring? More advertisers for 180solutions, Direct Revenue, and Hotbar, but now with an ITSA stamp of approval? In my view, ITSA should focus on cleaning up its members’ practices, rather than singing adware vendors’ praises.

As best I can tell, adware vendors are the only group that benefits from ITSA’s new policy. No wonder 180solutions endorses ITSA’s approach.

See also criticism from travel expert and consumer advocate Christopher Elliott.