Data & Tech

Advertisers are asking questions about the data TikTok can collect

“Terms like ‘data harvesting’ and ‘Chinese government surveillance’ tend to be flashpoints,” a buyer told us.
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Francis Scialabba

6 min read

Advertisers are raising concerns about the data they’re sharing with TikTok.

Since its explosive adoption by US audiences during the pandemic, TikTok has been rife with controversy. Recently, politicians and regulators have called for a ban on the app, calling it “potential spyware.” Even the FBI has said it is “extremely concerned” about it. Last month, Forbes reported that an internal security team within TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, was planning to use the app to “monitor the physical location of specific US citizens.”

Still, concerns have not stopped advertisers from funneling money into the platform. TikTok is expected to make nearly $10 billion in advertising revenue, growth of 155% over 2021, according to Insider Intelligence.

Even so, some media buyers told Marketing Brew they have adopted a more skeptical, cautious approach to TikTok’s pixel, which advertisers can install on their sites to track some of users’ online behavior.

“Some [brands] have adopted the pixel. I think there’s still some slight hesitancy in a couple places, just with the stories that keep surfacing about data being used,” Erica Patrick, SVP and director of paid social media at Mediahub, said, adding that she had expressed skepticism about aggressively promoting the pixel to clients, concerned that the next big story about TikTok could make the recommendation look foolish.

TikTok’s “parent company ownership makes this a unique scenario, and terms like ‘data harvesting’ and ‘Chinese government surveillance’ tend to be flashpoints,” she later wrote in an email. “Some clients have asked our POV on specific headlines; some are slower to adopt and implement the pixel than they might be with other partners; and some have no concerns.”

Pixel perfect?

A pixel is one way an advertiser and a platform can see a more complete view of a customer’s journey, explained Krzysztof Franaszek, ad-tech researcher and founder of Adalytics. They can be used to track and optimize how a campaign is performing and to target users with ads.

Snap, Meta, and The Trade Desk all have their own pixels; Meta’s can see if someone put an item in their shopping cart, made a purchase, or searched something. TikTok says its pixel can do the same thing. It can also collect IP addresses.

While advertisers use this information to, you know, advertise, there are more potentially serious security concerns about the data that’s collected, said Franaszek.

“Digital advertising-related identifiers can be used for surveillance or for enforcement attacks,” Franaszek wrote to Marketing Brew, pointing out that government agencies have used ad-tech tools to target cybercriminals, or worse. “Personal data, if harvested or accessed by certain bad actors, could be used to create real-world harm.”

TikTok introduced its pixel in 2018 and, according to the ad-tech analytics company Sincera, it was found on websites belonging to Dell, Samsung, HP, Spotify, Nike, and Ikea.

“It’s not the content”

Marketing Brew talked to eight media executives, and though none said outright that they’re telling their clients not to use TikTok’s pixel, a majority acknowledged that either they or their clients had raised concerns.

TikTok’s CEO, Shou Zi Chew, has addressed concerns about the company’s data security practices, telling investors this month that the company is working with Oracle, a company known to advertisers, on a project to “isolate sensitive data from its American users so that only staff in the US will have access,” according to Bloomberg.

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Meanwhile, advertisers are desperate to reach younger audiences, a demographic TikTok has in spades, explained Matt DeLuca, an advertising and media consultant and former head of digital paid media at Edelman. DeLuca said that of his clients that were interested in advertising on TikTok, some were unwilling to use the company’s pixel.

“They will not put the pixel on…They’re happy to give them money, they’re happy to put the creative up, but on the tracking side, they’re not willing to go that far,” he said.

In September, Walmart announced that it would start offering advertisers the ability to buy ads on TikTok through Walmart’s retail media business. Dentsu has pitched similar arrangements to other retail media networks, but they declined, citing concerns from lawyers or data governance teams, Mike Feldman, SVP, head of commerce and retail media at Dentsu said. Feldman declined to name the retailers. “Everyone’s on their own journey,” he said.

“There are always going to be some questions about data usage as it relates to the pixel…it’s really kind of a varying degree of comfort level,” said Ryan Horn, VP of paid social at Dentsu. “We’ll always defer to a brand’s legal team.”

Robert Pearsall, managing director of social activation at Omnicom Media Group, told Marketing Brew that there wasn’t yet a widespread implementation of TikTok’s pixels across his clients’ sites, though he said that’s because that kind of data collection hasn’t been needed for much of the campaigns they’re running.

“As more and more of our client-TikTok relationships expand to include more sales- or acquisition-focused tactics, we’ll continue to navigate the client legal queue that is required for approval for implementation of their pixel,” he told Marketing Brew in an email.

Jesse Rosenschein, SVP of integrated investment at the agency Mediassociates, told Marketing Brew that her company recommends a “pixel-based strategy” for most clients, whether it’s Snap or The Trade Desk.

“I’m as comfortable as our clients are, right. There’s benefit to it from a measurement perspective. I wouldn’t say that I have specific concerns that I wouldn’t have with other platforms.”

But there’s a significant difference between Metaand TikTok:  TikTok is a foreign-owned entity, which is where some buyer and advertiser concern stems from.

But that perspective is narrow, Arielle Garcia, chief privacy officer at UM, said, pointing out that the Director of National Intelligence has been asked to investigate whether ad tech—the bidding and selling of data for ads—could be a national security risk and investigations that found foreign entities potentially collecting US bidstream data.

“While I understand that there is a distinction that so often lands TikTok in the headlines, the reality is that that’s a pretty myopic view of the issue,” she told Marketing Brew. In other words, ad tech can be a dirty business.

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Marketing Brew informs marketing pros of the latest on brand strategy, social media, and ad tech via our weekday newsletter, virtual events, marketing conferences, and digital guides.