Understandably, advertisers want to know as much information about people as possible to help target ads. But, in this brave new digital world, that demand is leading to a massive invasion of people’s privacy by companies chasing advertising revenue. Do you think the industry should take responsibility for the negative impact it is having? And, if so, what should it do differently?
My own, admittedly rather lofty, view is that greater knowledge about individual consumers rarely leads to an increase in the efficiency of advertising – and may frequently have an opposite and adverse effect. If I’m right, then the industry won’t need to take heroic and self-denying steps to curb invasions of privacy; we’ll lose our overenthusiasm for data as we discover the limitations of data’s value.
As Stephen King pointed out to the Market Research Conference in 1975, a useful way of approaching the planning of advertising is first to determine how the advertisements are
expected to work. He described what he called "a scale of immediacy".
In some instances, ads are expected to generate immediate action: a coupon cut, a mouse clicked, a phone call made. But most advertising – certainly for mass-market, repeat-purchase brands – is seldom, if ever, expected to work in such a way.
Most main media advertising is designed to contribute to the long-term value of a brand; its brand equity, its desirable personality, its wantability – there are dozens of inadequate words for this all-important objective. And the advertising that fulfils this objective best is about as far as you can get down the scale of immediacy.
Back to data. I can absolutely understand the value of data for advertising that’s setting out to achieve an immediate response. If I’m handling the Alka-Seltzer account, and I learn that Barnaby Wilson, aged 43, has a serious hangover and, in three minutes’ time, will be passing a branch of Boots, I can put that knowledge to immediate use – or, rather, my algorithm can. Barnaby Wilson is unlikely to feel that his privacy has been invaded and both Boots and Alka-Seltzer will be fractionally better off.
It’s when big data is claimed to help brands ingratiate themselves with consumers over the long term that I part company with the data zealots – because, here, we’re talking about the building and maintenance of relationships. And all the best and most enduring relationships are mutually constructed.
A would-be friend who goes on and on about how much he really, really wants to be your friend is as likely to repel as attract you. The same applies to brands. People, entirely understandably, don’t want to feel that brands have won them over, against their better judgment, through devilishly clever advertising; they like to feel that it was they who made the first move.
And it’s here that brands, equipped with more knowledge about their consumers than ever before, can get it drastically wrong: because they’ll be tempted to show off that knowledge; to personalise everything because they think that personalisation is a sure way to a consumer’s heart.
Well, more often than not, it’s not. Personalisation is never even going to approximate to first-hand familiarity. Getting personalisation very slightly wrong, which is inevitable, is seen by the person in question not as evidence of knowledge but as evidence of ignorance; as impertinence, even. "Who does this brand think it is, I’d like to know?" That’s when anger about invasion of privacy will surface. It will be far, far safer, and far, far more effective, for brands to continue to keep a respectful distance: and to let their users and potential users be the ones who decide to consummate the courtship.
A million different people will each, entirely subjectively, define a brand to suit themselves; and they’ll be a million slightly different brands. That’s the only accurate form of personalisation because it’s shaped and determined not by presumptuous brands but by individuals. And they’re never going to get it wrong.
Were things better in the past?
The only person who could answer that question helpfully would be someone who’s the same age now as they were then. And I’m not.
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Jeremy Bullmore welcomes questions via firstname.lastname@example.org or Campaign, Teddington Studios, Broom Road, Teddington, TW11 9BE