20 November 2011

The way a cookie crumbles

Is advertising an art or a science? It's one of those facetious questions sometimes asked within advertising circles, and the answer largely depends on the department you work within, or what you are trying to get the client to pay for. Though officially a 'suit', I lean more towards the former: advertising is, fundamentally, about persuasion, and persuasion, as we all know, is an art. This also allows practitioners to keep a certain mystery around its practice; Lord Beaverbrook famously once remarked "I know that half my advertising budget is wasted, I just don't know which half".

This was the accepted way of things in the 20th century, in the dark, pre-digital days when advertising was channeled through the relative anonymity of a TV, newspaper or billboard. But in this era of digital media dominance, we now have the specter of Advertising As Science. Forget the uncertainty of knowing whether your audience sits rapt in front of your ad or disappears to make a cup of tea, now we can measure exactly who sees your ad and what they do once they've seen it. What started with "hits" on a website that became "unique visitors" has culminated in the phenomenon you must have noticed that is known as "remarketing" through the all-conquering Google.

If you've searched for a product recently - say a pair of Chelsea boots - you may have noticed, as you surf through unrelated, random websites, multiple ads showing you umpteen Chelsea boots. Maybe they even suggest trousers that would go well with this mythical pair of Chelsea boots? This is remarketing - where a website you have browsed places a cookie on your computer that allows it to serve advertising to you, via the Google display network, should you fail to convert the browsing into purchasing. This is Advertising As Science; we no longer need to persuade you why our Chelsea boots are the best because WE KNOW YOU WANT THEM! And we will continue to batter your eyes with ads for them until you give in, because we know we are right. We have statistical proof. Quite simply, you are wrong, because our science has proved it.

I recently visited thetrainline.com to find out prices of tickets from London to Manchester. Ever since, I have been served not just manifold web advertisements for thetrainline.com, but ads quoting me the latest prices for London to Manchester, repeatedly. This is despite the fact I have already purchased tickets on their website for Manchester, and travelled using them more than a week ago; apparently there is no satisfying my appetite for train tickets to Manchester. This is not so much targeted advertising as 'Terminator' advertising - the relentless pursuit of the consumer, like Arnold Schwartzenegger in the eponymous movie, advertising you to death.

Apart from the obvious fact this is incredibly annoying, not to say spooky, I think it also true to say that agencies and clients are missing a trick in the relentless pursuit of greater targeting. The Advertising As Science dogma has it that the more personalised an ad becomes, the greater its effectiveness: it cuts out the waste of talking to people who don't want a product to reach only those who do. This approach, presented as fantasy in the Tom Cruise movie Minority Report, is fast becoming reality. Apart from its incredible presumptuousness, it also fails to grasp the complexity of human beings.

If I only try to reach those people who have shown an interest in buying my Chelsea boots today, where does tomorrow's customer come from? I still have hard-wired into my brain advertising slogans from 30 years ago for consumer goods that couldn't possibly have been aimed at my infant brain or unwaged pocket. Many of them are for consumer brands that I now purchase as an adult, who have inveigled their way into my affection over the years through exposure and persuasion when I couldn't possibly have been the target audience. The need to renew an audience and market through persuasion means the 'purity' of a fully targeted approach is as misguided as the 'purity' of a gene-pool; it is through cross-fertilisation, serendipity and, frankly, randomness that success is rewarded. Sometimes the best breakthroughs in creative thinking happen when you need to take a chance. The alternative vision of the future, to paraphrase George Orwell, is of a Chelsea boot stamping on a human face - forever.

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