Tom Cruise is dead – or so I read as I scrolled my Twitter feed last week only to discover that I, along with his millions of fans, had been duped by yet another celebrity death hoax. Rumours of Cruise’s death spread like wildfire with an ‘RIP Tom Cruise’ Facebook page amassing over one million followers in a matter of hours. While many fans believed the news initially, others were quick to point to the recent spike in the number of celebrity death hoaxes which have become synonymous with the Fake News era.
Though fake news and traffic-goosing headlines falsely announcing the death of something or other are not new concepts, the proliferation of these stories has only been strengthened by the rise of adtech and programmatic advertising specifically. Which is why I’m skeptical each time I read a new headline declaring the death of the advertising industry. Sure, the past two years have been tough. We are dealing with some major challenges: the increasing dominance of the duopoly, ad fraud and GDPR, not to mention the rise in the use of ad blockers. But revenue reports increasingly show that despite all of the challenges we face, advertising spend continues to grow.
So why do these articles declaring our industry’s demise continue to pop up on every tech blog and news site from here to Timbuktu? Is it all a ploy by gormless advertising execs, so doomed and strapped for cash that they’re penning articles announcing the death of their own business to cash in on the ad clicks? Or is there something else at play here? I think the reason behind this recent phenomenon is far less complex. One need only look as far as the definition of advertising to see that the definition of the word, and the industry itself is in desperate need of an update.
The advertising identity crisis
Common definitions describe advertising as follows: “a non-personalized message to promote or sell a product, service or idea.” In the Mad Men era of advertising or even before that; in ancient Greece, when merchants would shout from their market stalls and hawk their wares to potential customers – this definition seems fitting. However in 2018, when personalization is the aim of the game for advertisers, this definition seems surprisingly out of whack.
The rise of programmatic advertising has provided unparalleled opportunities for advertisers to target ads to specific users and improve performance. With programmatic campaigns, platforms and algorithms can manage ad placements across thousands of sites to target the right user, at the right time, in the right place across the web and in mobile apps. Or so goes the value proposition. In practice though, programmatic advertising is wide open to abuse, as we have seen in the various brand safety scandals that are often elaborated upon in the accompanying text of those ‘Advertising is Dead’ articles.
Somewhere along the way, advertisers began to think that customers found targeted advertising useful and would be happy to exchange their personal data for more relevant messaging from brands. But despite what any Facebook-funded research study will tell you, users don’t want more personalized ads – they want freedom to choose what they do or don’t buy.
“John Anderton! You could use a Guinness right now.”
Going back to Tom Cruise, hyper-personalized advertising as seen through the eyes of his character in Minority Report has somehow become a roadmap for how we hope to create advertising experiences in the future. But not only does this type of advertising not serve users, it’s not even clear if it serves advertisers. It also opens the doors to the duopoly, as those with the biggest data troves inevitably gain all the ad dollars. This only further empowers a select few and facilitates abuse, with user data being used to manipulate people and even meddle in elections.
At this point, the conversation between customer and advertiser has reached an impasse. No doubt the main talking points at this year’s DMEXCO will center around how to solve this challenge and to deal with the results of many years of poorly targeted ads. So maybe, despite my skepticism, advertising really is dead. Or at least advertising as we know it now. But what’s the alternative?
Already since the GDPR enforcement in May, we’re seeing a rush of brands ditching audience-based targeting in favour of contextual targeting, allowing brands to connect with users in a way that respects their privacy but still provides value.
Perhaps instead of alienating users with hyper-personalized ads that intrude on their privacy that fulfill only advertisers’ goals, we attempt to understand what users actually want and to anticipate their needs. Maybe the user sees an ad for Uber as they check their social media after a long night working late at the office? Maybe an ad for Deliveroo as they browse for dinner options at home?
It sounds simple but as an industry we must learn to re-engage with our users at a cultural level, to operate with consent and to consider a new value proposition between advertiser and customer. If we’re able to advertise in AR, to allow AI to solve our workplace challenges, and to send a car to space, surely we can find a way to match brands with the right users, without infringing on their personal freedom.