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Who watches the watchers? Samsung does so it can fling ads at owners of its smart TVs

Customers forgot they are the product when splashing out on a nice telly

Samsung brags to advertisers that "first screen ads", seen by all users of its Smart TVs when they turn on, are 100 per cent viewable, audience targeted, and seen 400 times per TV per month. Some users are not happy.

"Dear Samsung, why are you showing Ads on my Smart TV without my consent? I didn't agree to this in the privacy settings but I keep on getting this, why?" said a user on Samsung's TV forum, adding last week that "there is no mention of advertising on any of their brand new boxes".

As noted by TV site flatpanelshd, a visit to Samsung's site pitching to advertisers is eye-opening. It is not just that the ads appear, but also that the company continually profiles its customers, using a technology called Automatic Content Recognition (ACR), which works by detecting what kind of content a viewer is watching.

Samsung's Tom Focetta, VP Ad Sales and Operations in the US, said in an interview: "Our platform is built on the largest source of TV data from more than 50 million smart TVs. And we have amassed over 60 per cent of the US ACR footprint." Focetta added that ACR data is "not sold, rented or distributed" but used exclusively by Samsung to target advertising.

The first screen ad unit was introduced five years ago, Focetta explained, and the company has since "added video, different types of target audience engagement, different ways to execute in terms of tactics like audience takeovers, roadblocks". A "roadblock" is defined as "100 per cent ownership of first screen ad impressions across all Samsung TVs". According to a Samsung support, quoted by flatpanelshd: "In general, the banner cannot be deactivated in the Smart Hub."

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Advertising does not stop there since Samsung also offers TV Plus, "a free ad-supported TV service". Viewers are familiar with this deal, though, since ad-supported broadcasting is long established. What perturbs them is that when spending a large sum of money on TV hardware, they were unknowingly agreeing to advertising baked into its operating menu, every time they switch on.

The advent of internet-connected TVs means that viewers now divide their time between traditional TV delivered by cable or over the air, and streaming content, with an increasing share going to streaming. Viewers who have cancelled subscription TV services in favour of streaming are known as cord-cutters.

Even viewers who have chosen to watch only ad-free content do not escape. "30 per cent of streamers spend all of their streaming time in non-ad supported apps. This, however, does not mean 'The Lost 30' are unreachable," said Samsung in a paper.

Samsung's solution is not only the first screen ads mentioned above, but also that "ACR data can reveal which audiences in a given household have seen your brand... through partnerships with the right tech stack to target and serve ads across all connected screens, advertisers who cannot reach an audience on the big screen can reach them on the other devices they are using."

Samsung is claiming that with the "right tech stack" a target stubbornly refusing to watch an ad on the big screen can be reached nonetheless, perhaps through their smartphone instead.

"I am at the point where I am not willing to buy any 'smart' TV at all. My next TV will be the biggest UHD monitor I am able to buy. It only needs an HDMI input, that's all," said a person on Twitter commenting on the issue.

The same effect can be achieved by not connecting a smart TV to the internet, but doing so removes all of its "smart" capability.

According to its Smart TV privacy policy, Samsung does allow viewers to disable "Interest-based advertisement (IBA) services". This does not affect whether or not you see advertisements, but does reduce the data collected.

The key question is this: let's say the income from advertising subsidizes the price of these data-collecting TVs, rather than simply directly adds to Samsung's bottom line. How much more would people be willing to pay for an ad-free, privacy-respecting version? If most people accept this kind of intrusion as normal, in a world where even your operating system (Windows, we're looking at you) may push ads at you, nothing will change. ®

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