Don’t Do Me Any Favors

Louise Story had a decent article in the NY Times on Monday about internet ad targeting. But the article, like every article on ad targeting ever written in a publication dependent on placating their obviously non-objective sources, said this:

…executives from the largest Web companies say … the data is a boon to consumers, because it makes the ads they see more relevant… “What is targeting in the long term?” said Michael Galgon, Microsoft’s chief advertising strategist. “You’re getting content about things and messaging about things that are spot-on to who you are.”

Now, let’s keep this between us internet marketing wonks, but the truth is targeting isn’t a boon to consumers. We’re not doing them any favors. Moreover, nobody I know who is in the marketing industry (as opposed to the media or ad-tech industry) says that consumers want advertising. Consumers put up with advertising, because they know they can’t get content without it.

Don’t agree? Here’s a simple test. If you’re doing the consumers such a favor with targeting, ask them to give you something back for it. Money, maybe. Or maybe just putting up with inferior content. That seems fair, doesn’t it? Convince me that consumers are willing to give up something for more relevant ads, or stop saying it.

The only thing consumers give up to see more relevant ads is their personal data, and while that data’s very valuable, they are giving it up only because they don’t know they are.

David Verklin, of Carat, in the same article:

“Everyone feels that if we can get more data, we could put ads in front of people who are interested in them,” he said. “That’s the whole idea here: put dog food ads in front of people who have dogs.”

Note that by “everyone” he means everyone in the marketing, media and technology world. He is paid to sell more dog food, and targeting lets him do that. If a salesman showed up in my office and said he came calling because I fit the profile of buyers of his product, I would say he’s just doing his job; if he claimed, in addition, that he was actually doing me a favor by not showing up trying to sell me something I didn’t want, I would think he was an idiot. Verklin does not claim to be doing anyone any favors, he claims to be doing his job. That is how marketing professionals think, and how the better ones admit to thinking.

I make my living in the marketing industry. I’m not going to bite the hand that feeds me. But the idea that we’re doing consumers a favor is so transparently ludicrous that it sounds exactly like intentional misdirection or defensive rationalization.

Please, everybody, stop saying targeting is a boon to consumers. Seeing ads are the price consumers pay for media. Anyone arguing that slightly lowering that cost by showing more relevant ads (without acknowledging that they are increasing the costs by nosing around in the consumers’ private affairs) is not doing anyone any favors, especially not the marketing industry.