To Target or Not to Target

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Adliterate recently penned a rant about targeting in online advertising. The experience that triggered it is something all of us have encountered (or will eventually do so) – search for something online and be bombarded with ads for the same for eternity.

His conclusion about targeting – it’s a great idea in theory, but in practice it’s better to waste ad spend reaching a broader audience. Hard to disagree with that, especially if one has been at the receiving end of this pesky tactic.

Malcolm Gladwell in a recent TED talk addressed this issue as well – not with regards to advertising, of course. He recounts the story of Carl Norden, a Swiss engineer who created the Norden Mark II Bombsight – a complex device designed to vastly improve the accuracy of dropping bombs from aircraft. Adopted by the US in WWII, it took a lot of money to develop and was great in ideal conditions. But in battle, it hardly achieved its promise. Another case of targeting failure.

But what these two examples reveal is that targeting is a ruse that’s not just limited to advertising or to dropping bombs – it’s a widely adopted stratagem in the natural and unnatural world around us (Think about a bird’s keen eyesight and its graceful swoop over its prey or the over-representation of sharpshooters in warlore.) That partly explains its enduring allure. A yearning for more efficiency through targeted means is something that’s deeply inherent in all us – especially when we’re expending our own resources. (Which can hardly be said to be the case for planners and adfolk recommending clients to loosen their purse strings willy-nilly.)

So, while not targeting is an option, targeting is a legitimate strategy too – and clients are right to pursue it. Some may decide it’s not for them, some may experiment with it and then decide it’s not for them – and some may persevere in demanding better targeting technologies and techniques. (The US Army didn’t stop pursuing accuracy in bombing even after the dismal failure of the Norden Bombsight. Which is why we have cruise missiles and Predators now – not everyone’s idea of progress, but progress nonetheless.)

And what is it about receiving targeted ads that drives us nuts? When targeting in advertising doesn’t work or draws attention to itself, it’s failure is starkly obvious to its quarry. We understand the ruse and are repelled by its naked artifice – by its profiteering motive and its seeming use of ‘pilfered’ data. Like a victim aware of a conman’s trick, we then either mock its failure or are repulsed by its success.

That may very well be what the non-advertising professional will continue to do. But for those of us in the business, it’s a chance to observe how and when our (or someone else’s) best-laid plans don’t work. To contemplate ways to improve or change that; and while we wait for things to get better, to explain to our clients the risks of targeting as is practiced now. (And for this reason alone, every person working in advertising should suffer from the failure of targeted ads.)

And it is here that the final act in the story of Carl Norden and his bombsight has something more to impart to us. Though its track record in WWII was dismal, the Norden bombsight was ironically used to drop the atom bomb – a device of destruction built to make the very idea of accuracy redundant.

And that’s the lesson we could also be sharing with our clients and with our comrades-in-advertising. To either pursue better bombsights or more destructive bombs – but not both together*. That targeting has its place, but not alongside rampant repetition and the racking up of exposures.

(*To be fair to the US Allied forces, they spent a lot of money on the bombsight and the atom bomb but probably did not expect to use the atom bomb in the first place.)

[Pic of Norden Bombsight by Mouser NerdBot]

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