Relevant or Creepy? The Blurred Lines of Personalization

By The Cog Blog Archives
Cover image for  article: Relevant or Creepy? The Blurred Lines of Personalization

One of the dilemmas we face with online advertising is identifying just where relevance stops, and stalking starts. We all want to see ads that are relevant to us and our needs, but to what extent are we prepared to give up elements of our privacy to achieve that?

This dilemma is well illustrated within the latest manifestation of Kantar Media's annual Dimension study. Across the five markets covered (U.K., USA, China, France, and Brazil), and a total sample of 5,000 connected adults, 61 percent say they prefer to see ads relevant to their particular interests. It may be a little surprising that this figure isn't higher.

More than half (54 percent) object to being targeted as a result of their past online behavior.

When asked, less than one-third say they "don't mind providing a website or social media network with information about myself if it means the advertising I see is more relevant to me."

The desire for relevance is obvious, and yet so is the desire for privacy.

The more we know about someone, the more relevant the advertising. At the same, the more we know about someone, the greater the threat to their privacy.

I've recently bought a pair of shoes (news that will come as a huge surprise to those who remember me in agencies, where I famously never wore dress shoes. I guess we all grow old.)

Now, I can't move for shoe ads on social media.

Once upon a time, this was a strategy of sorts — the people most likely to buy Ecco shoes in the future were probably quite similar to those who had just bought a pair — but that argument doesn't really work when we are talking about identifiable individuals. After all, I'm unlikely to buy another pair for several decades.

Nick Emery of Mindshare once shared an excellent analogy to explain online advertising. In his example, he's walking through a department store on his way to buy a set of luggage. En route, he walks through the shoe department. Without breaking stride, he comments to his wife, "That's a nice pair of shoes."

From then on, he's pursued through the store by a salesperson yelling: "Buy these shoes, buy these shoes!" Naturally, he doesn't.

Online ads reach a lot of people and no doubt once or twice they've been known to work… (that's a joke, chaps). But crass retargeting does not work, and most retargeting is crass.

Tracking people around the Internet, in my mind, is wrong. It's the line where using a mass advertising medium, with the potential to deliver audiences in a smart way, tips over into stalking.

And where does this leave that wonder of the modern age: addressability?

I think the promise of addressability is around a creative, as opposed to a media benefit. Yes, we can zero in on an individual and send them individually focused messages, but the examples I've seen soon cross over the line to creepy.

On the other hand, if a strong, strategic thought can be executed in a way that makes it particularly relevant to me without thinking my every move is being tracked and reported on, then fine.

In any event, the demise of cookies and the real possibility that, soon, we will be in a position to manage our own data and distribute or sell it to whoever we like, will go a long way towards resolving the dilemma.

We will all get to pick what is for us — the balance between creepy and relevant. Doc Searls' VRM vision is fast becoming a reality. The Cog Blog will look at that in a future post.

Disclosure: BJ&A has done work on the Kantar Dimension Study mentioned here.

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