The Paradox Of Choice And Advertising

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You can’t have it both ways.

Someone is going to have to break the bad news to the consumers. You can’t have it both (and every) way. Sorry. Yesterday, I Blogged about the "do not track" button that would stop media companies from tracking an individual’s online usage (you can read more about it here: The Do Not Track Button). Consumers are up in arms about having their every online move tracked and monitored, so that more relevant advertising can be thrust upon them. Yes, there is a fine line between knowing what someone is doing online and knowing who, exactly, is doing it and, if we give those marketers that inch, they may take it the whole mile and that’s the Pandora’s Box of problems that few want to open up.

But what do consumers really (really) want?

In yesterday’s Research Brief by MediaPost there was a news item titled, Too Much Advertising Is Digital Suicide. Marketers are being told in a new research report titled, 2012 Digital Advertising Attitudes Report, that: "UK adults and U.S. adults aged 18+, show that 27% of British, and 20% of American consumers online would stop using a product or service, such as the social networking site, if they were subjected to too much advertising. This, as 66% each of British and American online consumers already claim they feel subjected to excessive digital advertising and promotions." What they’re saying is: "yes, we know it’s free but if there’s too many ads, we’re gone… we don’t care."

So, what do these consumers really (really) want?

Are you ready for this? Sit down and take a deep breath. Here’s what the news item says: "to make the US user more likely to respond positively to the marketing, the advertising must be:

  • Tailored to the consumer’s personal interests (26%)
  • Contextually relevant to what they are doing (21%)
  • Specific to their location (19%)"

Go back and re-read those three key bullet-points.

The only way that advertising will be acceptable and work, according to the consumers, is to know their personal interests, make it relevant to what they’re doing and be specific to their location. Sorry, kids but that can’t happen if you click that "do not track" button. To me, this type of research and these types of insights reminds me of Steve Jobs‘ infamous line: "because customers don’t know what they want until we’ve shown them." Ultimately, if consumers don’t want to be tracked but do want the kind of advertising that can only be delivered when they are being tracked, perhaps it’s incumbent on us – as a marketing industry – to spend a lot more time in the advertising lab and in conference debating, hacking and inventing new and informative ways to build a strong advertising world. It’s clear to me, that this massive paradox that the consumer’s are presenting is not going to help us get anywhere. I too would like to become a millionaire without doing any work, but alas that’s simply not the way to make money. Comparatively, consumers will never get that kind of advertising delivered unless marketers can know what their interests are, where they’re going and where they are located. Or am I missing something?

Yes, it’s frustrating, but these are the consumers and we’re the ones who will have to figure this out. Any ideas?


  1. Erm… Is there any data showing that the consumers who want targeted advertising are the same consumers in uproar about being tracked? Because if these aren’t the same people, there’s no problem with a ‘do not track’ button.

  2. Don’t consumers really just want us to KNOW what they want? You know, like mind readers? Sometimes being in business with your target market can be a little like being in a relationship- we need to get to know them so well that we can anticipate their wants and needs without having to ask.
    For example, I know that when my husband is sick, he wants tomato soup and crackers and a horrible drink called Malta that his grandmother gave him when he was a young boy in Uruguay. Do I know this because I’ve tracked his internet searches? Nope. I know because I know HIM.
    Likewise, I know the exact pain points hitting my target market demographic and how to speak to them. Do I know this because I track them? Nope. I know because I know THEM. I’ve made it my business (pun intended) to know them and have spent years and years talking to them and getting to know them.
    It’s somewhat different, I suppose, if you have a vast corporation with a complex, heterogeneous target market, but on the whole, are we really getting so much super-surprising information from tracking people that we actually need it?Does the information we gain deliver truly useful results that direct us to do things any differently than we’d do anyway? Or is this more about super-subtle data?

  3. Mitch: When you go to the local coffee shop on your way to the train station every morning and the proprietor leaves your bagel and cream cheese and coffee (half and half, one sugar) on the counter…and leaves you the correct change because he knows you are going to pay with a $5 bill, you have been “tracked.” The guy behind the counter has observed your behavior, and provided a service that is tailored, relevant and specific to your location. That’s great customer service, and great marketing. Sure, you have given up a bit of your privacy to get this service, but that’s the value exchange you engage in to save time on your way to the train.
    Why the digital advertising world can’t and doesn’t tell the “do not track/privacy” narrative in this fashion is beyond me (I’ve been trying).

  4. I would say that this Paradox directly relates to one of your recent posts about Ads worth spreading. I 100% agree with you that people do not hate advertising, they hate bad advertising. After reading this blog post I went straight to my Facebook page to poke around. These are actual ads that I saw when I was watching one my wife’s photo albums: 1. “Play the only official Marvel game on Facebook” (I’ve never read one comics book neither I’ve played a single game on Facebook), 2. “Free SQL Server resources” (Although I actually work for business intelligence software vendor which is somehow related to SQL Server technology, my title is Marketing Manager, which means I am hardly interested in exploring free SQL Server transaction Log, especially on Facebook). Having all these modern platforms, technologies and tools for making advertisements contextual, personal and location related, some marketers, at the end of the day, are still trying to push ads in the same old way. Only now consumers have that really powerful switch in their hands.

  5. As a market researcher I both love and hate these surveys. Yes, people want it both ways but that is because the lack of specific context turns these into value questions. And yes, values often conflict. The findings reflect the tension that we feel about privacy in a modern world especially when it seems we have to accept a broad “trust us” that the trackers are not doing anything dangerous.
    I have been viewing the issue of a do not track button through the lens of permission-based marketing. And from that perspective, I don’t want someone else deciding what is relevant to me (especially if it based on my wife’s surfing behaviour on our shared computer). It also means that mining site traffic is really an attempt to get around the failure of a brand to build an actual relationship with me.

  6. We have gone to great trouble to install analytics but we seem to have become lazy about leveraging the gold nuggets this provides. I had FB contact me the other night and had no clue everything I have on the site. NO EXCUSE for that ignorance.

  7. What consumers “want” is free content. If they have to accept advertising to get it, they can ignore it at their leisure. Relevance is an advertiser value. Relevance improves the cost-effectiveness of advertising. But consumers don’t really “want” more relevant ads. In fact ,it could be argued that increased ad relevance distracts them from the reason they’re involved with the medium. Not always true, exceptions like fashion magazines.
    It will be interesting to see how sponsored storytelling in Facebook’s news feed get received.

  8. I am going to be niave here, so bare with me. What is the difference between being tracked on the Internet and our every move/purchase being recorded at a shopping mall (we all know, we are recorded not just for security).

  9. I see the same tension with the appetite for people to pay for content (especially digital content). Incremental production costs (i.e. copy/paste) may be zero, but the upfront part doesn’t go away.
    People want an unending stream of awesome content, but recoil at pay walls, micropayment requests, Nascar-style ad bonanzas, and the price point of digital goods.
    Wish I had a good answer for this. I’m pinning my hope on Apple; they seem to be slowly and steadily retraining people to pony up for content in a way that benefits creators, publishers, advertisers, and users.

  10. The only response that is worth anything is the one that says marketers have to come up with advertising that IS tailored, contextually relevant and location specific. Part of the reason people get in appropriate ads thrust in front of them is that the specification tools (keywords, demographic profiles, whatever) are too broad brush and do not allow targeting to be as finely granular as will be acceptable. And, yes, it is difficult to be a mind reader when some people may respond to an ad they weren’t expecting, but think ‘Actually that cruise does look interesting’ even though it had nothing to do with their discussion about the football game.
    Consumers have to realise at some point that they cannot get all these free tools that allow them to share photos, talk to their friends etc for free, just like 120 years ago, the cost of having a printed newspaper meant they get ads in there too. Nothing to stop them ignoring them, is there!
    With the EU cookie law, this will only become that bit more difficult over here, but perhaps there is a solution in having an advertising extension to user profiles that says ‘OK, what categories of advertising are you prepared to have appear in front of you’ when they sign up, and approve use of cookies at the same time.
    Frankly, there is no difference between doing this online through cookies, and the guy in the bar having your usual ready when you walk through the door. Ultimately, it’s a lot of hot air and the advertisers are an easy target. But one way to defuse it would be to let the user have the control – in behavioural psychology terms, gain control by giving control – and then shut up and get on with life.

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