In 2004 a film called Sideways won an Oscar and was nominated for four more.
It was a film about wine.
It was an interplay of witty dialogue, the hero was an unpublished author, it had a jazz soundtrack, and it starred unknown actors.
It was, in short, an art film.
Naturally the audience were people who considered themselves above average intelligence.
The sort of people who wouldn’t want to be seen watching a Hollywood blockbuster.
This was a film for people who cared about their image.
And the proof of this was what happened to wine sales after the film ran.
One of the main characters, a wine connoisseur, referred sneeringly to Merlot.
He says contemptuously, "I’m not drinking any fucking Merlot."
Then, to underline his disgust, he yells "If anyone orders Merlot I’m leaving."
After the film ran, Merlot sales fell by 2%.
None of the audience wanted to be seen ordering Merlot.
As everyone who’d seen the film knew, Merlot said you knew nothing about wine, Merlot was plonk for the masses.
So the people who wanted to be seen as cognoscenti couldn’t be seen drinking Merlot.
Later in the film, the same character gave a speech about Pinot Noir.
He said lovingly, "Pinot Noir needs constant care and attention and only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it, someone who takes the care to coax it into its fullest expression. Then its flavours are just the most haunting, and brilliant, and thrilling, and subtle, and ancient on the planet."
The people who watched the film got the message.
In the same period Merlot sales fell by 2%, Pinot Noir sales rose by 16%.
The people who wouldn’t be seen drinking Merlot wanted to be seen drinking Pinot Noir.
It said they knew what they were doing.
For me, the most interesting part was that the sales had nothing to do with the taste of the actual liquid in the glass.
Sales changed according to what the purchasers believed the wine said about them.
About how they would be judged by other people.
If you ordered Merlot you were crass and mainstream.
If you ordered Pinot Noir you were discerning and sophisticated.
It wasn’t the taste in the glass you were buying, it was a badge.
This is what big data and online advertising fails to understand.
Because this is how traditional advertising works.
With online’s precise targeting, no one but you sees the ad.
It’s like a salesman knocking on your front door and delivering a sales pitch.
No one hears it but you, it’s a private conversation.
But in mass media (TV, posters, press) everyone else is watching and listening in.
So you know everyone will have an opinion about your purchase.
It isn’t a discreet transaction, your choice now says something about you.
What you choose now sends out a message to everyone else.
Just by virtue of the fact that everyone else is exposed to the message at the same moment you are.
So it isn’t really useful to compare online targeted media to traditional media.
That would be like comparing a direct mail door-drop to a 48 sheet poster campaign.
It’s more useful to refer to them as broadcasting versus narrowcasting.
Dave Trott is the author of Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three.