Targeted ads and the importance of advertising

For the last month I have been staring at khakis. It seems like every website I visit is showing me display ads for Bonobo’s brand of pants. Thing is, I’ve never bought a pair of khakis in my life. I visited the Bonobo website as part of a research project and now am the target of their “targeted ads”. Granted, the site has some innovative ways of purchasing pants and if I were even close to fitting into their demographic, I would buy pants from them.

Then there’s the GE ecomagination text ads. Any and every site that has Google text ads is giving me 100% ecomagination all day, everyday. This one I can’t complain much about. It’s my fault. Five years ago at my previous agency,Syrup, the CTO and I pushed to have our email and collaborative systems switched over to Google Hosted. And since I was a lucky member of the brilliant team that created the ecomagination campaign, I’ve got five years of emails containing the word “ecomagination” in them. What other ad would Google want to serve me? I’m cleary totally and completely obsessed with GE and their “green” initiative.

This got me thinking about what it means to live in a world of targeted ads. With the Super Bowl coming up, we as a nation are about to have a whole bunch of ads to talk about together. The best ads will be viewed millions of times on YouTube and be posted to various Facebook walls with comments like “ROFL”, “OMG” and probably a random troll fight or two. But while good ads ingrain themselves in our culture, great ads are works of art that do more than make us want to buy the product. I don’t think I’m exaggerating here. We use them as cultural and generational identifiers (I guess here Google wants me to write something like “remember ‘We Bring Good Things to Life’? or ‘Gee…no, GE’”).

But what happens in a world where we don’t share the same ads? What do we possibly have to talk about? Ok, ok, we’d have lots and lots of things to talk about. But what do advertisers think will happen if their ads are distributed only to those who expressed interest in their brand? Or what will happen if an ad has to pass through hundreds of targeting bots to be seen by an entire country? I’m sure that there will always be a channel for national distribution but imagine a future where “targeting” has won. If targeting became the primary distribution of ads then it would drive advertisers to focus on their known consumers. In the worst case scenario, targeted ads could remove the great ad for our cultural canon, to be replaced with socially targeted (read: fragmented) ads. In the best case, consumers alight on only their known desires, leaving friends and bloggers to fill in the socially iconic blanks.

All exaggeration aside, my point is, in the marketing world we create bandwagons that our industry jumps upon as the “next best thing”. But what sounds great on paper doesn’t always translate into real-world effective advertising. When thinking about targeted ads, we should remember that, like social media and SEO, they’re just one piece of a bigger plan.

(This is from a post I wrote on the Wolff Olins blog)