Advertising Age

It seems to me that, in the endless discussion about the internet, privacy, and the profitability of companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon, and now Twitter, an important element is being skipped.

I remember that when these companies were relatively new, the big question was usually about revenue: “okay, Facebook has 500 million users, but how are they going to make any money?”

And the answer that eventually emerged was “by selling targeted ads, of course!”

Granted, the ability to connect people to the products that they want to purchase is a powerful tool. I just bought some 16mm splicing tape via eBay, in fact – a relatively obscure item which would have required a fair amount of work for me to track down ten years ago. Today the entire process, from seeking the product to paying for it, took about five minutes.

But there seems to be an essential difference, to me, between connecting me with a product that I already know I want, and persuading me to buy something that I may or may not want or need. The argument for targeted ads seems to be that, by virtue of their ability to profile me, my interests and likes and dislikes, that they will more easily persuade me that I want to buy the product for which I have been targeted.

As far as I know, I have never yet clicked on a targeted ad, on Facebook or anywhere else. I believe that either 100% of the time or near 100% of the time, I make the decision to seek out a product (via Amazon or eBay) prior to being presented with advertising for that genre of product.

Maybe I’m deluded, oblivious to the subtle influences of the ads that enter my life everyday, via Hulu commercials, website banners and billboards. I do own a bunch of Apple products – but not the newest ones.

I don’t believe that I’m a superior consumer, more enlightened than the masses – so I guess I have a hard time believing that advertising, even targeted advertising, truly works much of the time, or at all.

Moreover, I’ve worked with advertisers, behind the scenes at ad agencies, on commercials, and on marketing efforts for a wide range of clients, from small nonprofits to large corporations. I have quite limited faith in the wisdom of ad agencies, in their ability to sway people, to tap into their deep desires, to appeal to their need for ego self-definition via purchased objects or services.

In my experience, the advertisers I’ve met and worked with don’t have any special key to unlock the psyches of their potential customers, driving the economy to ever greater heights of consumerist utopia. They’re just normal people trying to craft a multimedia message that usually isn’t more complicated than, “You will enjoy this! It will improve your quality of life!”

True, people buy things that they think will make them happy, and often those things don’t actually make them happy, leading them to buy something else and repeat the experiment. This I do believe.

But I also have a persistent faith that people are capable of learning, noticing that their purchases aren’t actually making them happy, at some point provoking them to backtrack toward more fundamental questions: “How am I spending my time? Who do I care about? What’s the meaning of my life on this earth?”

The ability of technology companies to parse mountains of Big Data, while impressive, doesn’t ultimately mean much in the end, when the best use we have for those consumer profiles is to turn them over to (usually) mediocre advertising professionals, who will try to convince us to buy things.

The fantasy of the profitability of these vast algorithmic engines, I believe, lies in our ancient desire to be understood, to have some entity (a person, a computer, a deity) make sense of all of this for us, to really know what we want and why.

But if all that powerful entity can do, at the end of its techno-arcane alchemy, is clumsily try to tell us what we might like to purchase, what good is it, anyway?

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