The trouble with Apple’s brilliant, new privacy-centric ad

Apple has been releasing a series of ads bolstering iOS’s privacy-centric features. I wrote about the disconnect in the one they released in September 2020, last year.

Like that ad, the latest one too, again by TBWA\Media Arts Lab, takes some creative liberties to make its point – usual advertising-level exaggerations and some more.

To be clear, the creative device the ad uses is really clever. The narrative personifies apps that track the user as strangers/individuals who continue to follow the person in the real world! And Felix, the user, uses a Thanos-style action to zap all the app trackers in one smooth move! It’s a brilliant idea to simplify the app tracking story and make it easily relatable to just about anyone.

Plus, the music used: Delta 5’s ‘Mind Your Own Business’ where the lyrics go,
“Can I have a taste of your ice cream?
Can I lick the crumbs from your table?
Can I interfere in your crisis?
No, mind your own business…”

Considering Apple’s biggest selling point in recent years is the privacy built into their products, these ads work very well to build on that appeal.

However, ironically, these rules do not seem to apply to Apple’s own apps.

Apple explains their app tracking transparency very clearly here:

As per the explanation, Apple allows users to opt-in to tracking by 3rd party apps. That is, you need to affirmatively agree to let an app track your data on an iPhone.

But when it comes to Apple’s own apps, the policy seems to be opt-out. That is, you need to affirmatively, consciously go to the settings and stop Apple from tracking you, but the default is that Apple does track you.

Apple’s own privacy policy states this.

Under ‘Location-Based Ads’, it says,

If you grant the App Store or Apple News access to your device location, Apple’s advertising platform may use the current location of your device to provide you with geographically targeted ads on the App Store and on Apple News. You can opt out on your iOS or iPadOS device by going to Settings > Privacy > Location Services, and either tapping to turn off Location Services or selecting App Store or News from the list of location-aware switches and setting it to Never.

Under ‘Personalized Ads’, it says,

If Personalized Ads is turned on, Apple’s advertising platform may use your information to serve ads that are more relevant to you. Turning off Personalized Ads will prevent Apple from using this information for ad targeting. It may not decrease the number of ads you receive, but the ads may be less relevant to you. You can disable Personalized Ads on your iOS or iPadOS device by going to Settings > Privacy > Apple Advertising and tapping to turn off Personalized Ads.

The default for both is that you agree to let Apple track your location and offer you personalized ads. This is not the same way Apple treats 3rd party apps, understandably, since it does not know them well enough.

Apple creates user profiles too, much like Google, to target and personalize ads!

We create segments, which are groups of people who share similar characteristics, and use these groups for delivering targeted ads. Information about you may be used to determine which segments you’re assigned to, and thus, which ads you receive. To protect your privacy, targeted ads are delivered only if more than 5,000 people meet the targeting criteria.

But the use of opt-in vs. opt-out is worth questioning. There is a French antitrust complaint on Apple about this too!

What does Apple say to this allegation? (Source)

The allegations in the complaint are patently false and will be seen for what they are, a poor attempt by those who track users to distract from their own actions and mislead regulators and policymakers. Transparency and control for the user are fundamental pillars of our privacy philosophy, which is why we’ve made App Tracking Transparency equally applicable to all developers including Apple. Privacy is built into the ads we sell on our platform with no tracking.

Apple evades the opt-in vs. opt-out angle in its response. It does give Apple a significant advantage over 3rd party apps the same way how Microsoft has made Internet Explorer the default browser in Windows and got sued for the same.

Apple extends this unfair advantage to certain other areas too!

For instance, Tile, a brand of smart tags that released long before Apple’s recently released AirTags, argued recently that the ‘magic onboarding flow’ that Apple makes available to AirTags is not available with 3rd party products like Tiles.

Think of it this way: if you buy Apple’s AirPods, pairing them with your iPhone would be incredibly smooth. Open the box, and it’d pair instantly. Try pairing a non-Apple set of earpods/True wireless buds with your iPhone, to see the difference in experience.

To be sure, this is not an Apple-centric problem – I recently finally succumbed to the TrueWireless bandwagon and purchased a OnePlus Buds Z. I simply had to open the buds’ box for the first time and my OnePlus phone automatically picked the buds’ and paired it seamlessly!

Given Apple’s dominance in multiple products, this seamlessness across products and services could give it an enormous advantage over its rivals who make smaller, individual products – very similar to the advantage Apple’s own trackers have with an opt-out (default state is that it ropes people in) vs. third party apps’ opt-in (default is that it lets people choose the first time the app is installed).

So that new privacy ad would have a slightly different ending – it would have at least one guy staying back in Felix’s house, and he is that guy from who Felix forgot to revoke tracking permission!

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