Running weekend errands not so long ago, I rolled into Target and, while purchasing various other personal hygiene products, remembered I was nearly out of toothpaste. Glad I remembered. In the aisle before me were a variety of options, as anyone who’s ever shopped for toothpaste knows.
Like many single guys, I’m generally looking for ways to be more appealing to women. As you might imagine, the toothpaste aisle promises a variety of ways to accomplish this, generally by making your teeth whiter. I took a moment to peruse and eventually decided on a particular line of toothpaste in a particular brand that I decided might accomplish what it advertised, based on the box. I didn’t Google this brand, I didn’t text or phone a friend, I just bought the toothpaste. It was a small investment over my usual purchase, my teeth are pretty nice to start with so it wasn’t like I was hurting for high-end toothpaste. Why not?
I checked out. I went home. I brushed my teeth. They felt the same. To this day, the effectiveness of the toothpaste is yet to be determined.
Two short days later, I’m in the market for something else. I honestly couldn’t tell you what, but it was online, so I was shopping on Amazon, when what to my wondering eyes should appear, but an ad for the same toothpaste I had impulse purchased two days earlier.
I’ll repeat, not once had I Googled this toothpaste, shopped for it online or so much as uttered the name of the toothpaste out loud. I didn’t even use my Target debit card when I checked out. But here I was, staring at an ad for this toothpaste, a product I had already purchased. It was at home in my cabinet, yet also on my computer.
Magazine ads, TV commercials and other forms of advertising that have come before are generally very blanket in style. You might see more prescription drug commercials during golf or hear Ovaltine ads during your weekly Little Orphan Annie program, but until recently, that’s been the extent of targeted advertising.
But our TV had only a power button, practically no data attached. You could plug it into any outlet in any house and it would work fairly anonymously, no strings attached, very unlike your phone or computer almost perpetually capturing information about you. If you liked, your cable company didn’t even have to know or care about it.
And isn’t that the shortcoming of such advertising? They are often off-target, pedaling products we just don’t care about. You can make your best guess based on the publication or program the ad is appearing in, but it’s very much a spray-and-pray strategy. For a long time, however, there wasn’t really a better solution. No one at an advertising company was going to maintain a detailed spreadsheet of their audience–what a silly waste of time. Perhaps a cursory spreadsheet, but certainly nothing rivaling today’s resources.
Internet advertising began in a similar fashion with many of the same shortcomings. The amount of targeting happening in the first spam email was “Do you live on the west coast?” Banner ads, as an effort to fund websites, were sold to anyone who would buy space. As search was introduced, it was possible to begin advertising in context by serving up ads relevant to someone’s query.
But why couldn’t we know what someone wants even when they weren’t searching? Why couldn’t we know what someone wants even when they weren’t directly online? With the advent of modern computers, sign in with Facebook and those pesky IP addresses, we can automate the collection of our wants and needs and dreams into fuel for smarter ads, and that’s exactly what’s happened. This is, mind you, for the sake of sales. Not because we, the consumers, were pleading for “better ads” that spoke more personally to us (or at least I wasn’t, for fear of speaking for the whole). It’s for the sake of serving me a toothpaste ad. The hope is that this ad is more likely to generate a response, a behavior. It’s a noble endeavor–I, too, wish to use my money effectively. Why waste time and money speaking to an audience that isn’t listening?
The online age has created dirt-cheap opportunities for businesses. Suddenly, everyone can compete in a global market with almost no overhead. Advertise and ship both overseas and next-door and pay only shipping. There’s so much internet to go around that everyone can have a little slice.
So what’s the problem?
There are a few.
Advertising has become accessible, sure. The capacity of the internet to serve up ads is nearly limitless, but people’s capacity to consume them is, I would argue, less than the current threshold. Not only is our capacity for ads incapable of supporting the current market, but I would further posit that individuals can’t even maintain a working knowledge of the brands available in this global market, as opposed to the stores along Main Street and in the mall locally. The ads have become accessible, but the consumer infinitely less so. Our attention is a commodity that we’ve exhausted, making the market just as contentious as ever. Is this problem bigger than advertising? Sure. But I think the point undermines the effort going into the advertising. If you’re a small business, name recognition is going to be tough to establish. You can’t share the space, and a marketing campaign may very well not be sufficient to capture away some of the current space. You’ll be better off having a truly innovative product without competition, a high-quality product that can usurp a stagnant, established brand, or identifying a previously untapped market with a unique version of an existing product.
Let’s consider the commodity concept for a moment as well. Doesn’t it make you uncomfortable to be thought of as a commodity, bought and sold by advertising companies? It happens everywhere we go, and to many of us, it seems absurd. But to others, it goes unnoticed. Your credit cards, your browser, your Facebook–everywhere. You are a commodity. You are bought and sold.
We’re a nation up in arms about the FBI accessing information on a phone in San Bernardino, and for good reason–it sets a precedent, as many have alluded to1, in which our private data is only private in the loosest sense, but we’ve only noticed after Apple told us to. It wouldn’t be nearly as advantageous for Apple (or Google or Facebook et al) to tell us the many ways in which our data is sold, packed and shipped to advertisers and advise us to be outraged about it–that’s their business, their funding.
And that highlights a very important problem–we’ve wandered from speaking about the business implications of these ads, which a company can sympathize with, to the ethics, which are a much tougher sell to a corporate entity, especially when those two facets result in conflicting courses of action.
Let’s revisit, too, the idea that some people are aware that this is happening to them and others seem blissfully ignorant. Person A and Person B.
I’m Person A. Personally, I’m often more hostile to products that advertise to me. Contrary to other Person A’s, who may choose to click so that advertisers pay up, I’d rather not reinforce the practice and consciously avoid clicking Google Adwords search results. Outside of Google, advertising online is often as if someone insisted on talking to me about toothpaste while I’m clothes shopping, and insisted on talking to me about clothes while I’m researching CSS selectors. I’ll sometimes make a purchase from a company, only to be served up ads from them time and time again, at which point I’ve become infinitely less likely to take my business back to them. Frank and Oak? Never again.
But somewhere out there is Person B–tons of people clicking on ads as they fly by. Make no mistake, these people exist and are huge in number–after all, they support this entire industry. They’ll click on ads for products they’ve never heard of. Person B is an entire demographic.
When I did Facebook advertising for a side project (shameless self-promotion), I found myself unconvinced that the audience that clicks on Facebook ads had much overlap with my product’s target audience. Is there a big overlap between the local-vore, craft beer loving audience and the audience that clicks on internet ads? Framed a different way, is there a big overlap between people who will click on an online ad for a new product and people who will venture a trip to an unheard of brewery?
Regardless of the resonance that my brand may have with this ad-clicking audience, the fact remains that this is an audience, and this audience should be considered when deciding whether or not this kind of targeted advertising is appropriate.
It’d be easy to take this article and toss it under the header of business-ignorant, uninformed sheeple bleating about crimes against no one, and if it were the end of the conversation, you’d be right. However, I believe there’s a way out, a better advertising model. One that respects its audience and still provides a return on investment, though I’m sure some of us will be dragged kicking and screaming. More on that later in the inevitable part two.