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Just how targeted can that targeted ad be? Ad networks set new guidelines

A trade group representing ad networks like Tacoda and DoubleClick finalizes guidelines to prevent targeting ads toward "sensitive" topics like medical history, sexual orientation.

Social media and Web-surfing habits have made it possible for advertisers to target their campaigns at the narrowest of niche audiences. But what happens when targeting goes beyond relevance and into insensitivity? That's something that a big digital-ad trade group has addressed in a new set of guidelines that effectively ban behavioral targeting pertaining to certain medical and psychological conditions.

The Network Advertising Initiative (NAI), which encompasses ad networks like AOL's and Tacoda, Yahoo's BlueLithium, and Google's DoubleClick, published the draft of its "Self-Regulatory Code of Conduct for Online Behavioral Advertising" guidelines on Thursday. The document was passed in response to principles proposed by the Federal Trade Commission last year.

Under the new guidelines, advertising companies are instructed not to track--and subsequently not display relevant targeted ads across the Web--behavioral practices that would indicate a history of cancer, AIDS, sexually related conditions (erectile dysfunction, or sexually transmitted diseases), abortions, or psychiatric conditions. They're also instructed not to track sexual orientation or criminal victim status.

Targeting ads to children under the age of 13 was also outlawed in the new guidelines.

Additionally, the NAI, which allows individuals to manually opt out of members' ad networks, identified a list of topics deemed potentially sensitive that would require "independent business judgment" on the part of the ad network in question. These include "age, addictions...alienage or nationality, criminal history, death, disability, ethnic affiliation, marital status, philosophical beliefs, political affiliation or opinions, pregnancy, race identification, religious affiliation...(and) trade union membership."

It could get a little rigid: this seems to restrict, for example, an advertising company using behavioral targeting to promote LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender)-focused dating sites or events. There's a fine line between good taste and poor taste, as behavior advertising inherently relies on knowing some degree of personal information about Web users. And, in an interview with The New York Times, NAI executive director J. Trevor Hughes acknowledged it. "It may be a sensitive category to target someone based on their ethnicity," he told the Times, but then admitted that it's a tough call. "The Hispanic market in the United States is very large...I don't think anyone would think it is unreasonable to direct ads to Hispanics in the Spanish language."

The guidelines come at a time when targeted ad technology is still in an experimental phase, as digital-ad companies and social networks attempt to replicate the success that Google has had with its AdSense program. Facebook and, for example, have instituted new advertising programs that take advantage of user profile data.

The trade group has instituted a 45-day period for public feedback on the new guidelines, and will finalize them after June 12.