A Response To: Ads Don’t Work That Way

Kevin Simler recently wrote a very thought provoking piece about the mechanisms, intent and efficacy of advertising, that I enjoyed reading. This piece is not a refutation nor a bitchy ‘kick in the crotch’ piece that is not uncommon  in academic circles. I do believe that Simler overlooked one key component of the mix.

The concept of Emotional Inception – if I understand it correctly – whereby we are manipulated by images of situations/states that we aspire to doesn’t go into the required depth. It is true that the initial premise is correct, though there is a much deeper psychological explanation underlying this. The understanding of this state also helps to explain why we do not act in an economically rational way, something the behavioural scientists have also long challenged. See this (now older but still excellent) TED Talk on apparently irrational consumer choices.

Simler goes further with an example of a Corona beer ad, remarking how it is devoid of any information, instead it seems to be designed to associate the product with an ideal relaxation scenario. Whilst this is not wrong in and of itself, it isnot so simple. Advertising people would argue that such an ad cannot exist on its own but as part of a larger campaign, often running over many years, likely comprised of television, billboards, bus stops, targeted digital advertising and a variety of print mediums. Therefore, looking at it to serve as a stand-alone explanatory piece is unsatisfactory.

More importantly, what is being overlooked are the concepts on consumption developed by the recently deceased Sociologist and Philosopher Zygmunt Bauman. He writes of Liquid Modernity (2002 Polity Press). One of several areas addressed is the discussion of shopping (consumption) as a liquid modern rite for exorcising uncertainty. The concept that to ease the cognitive dissonance of realising where you are (not close enough) and where the ‘ideal’ is (beach, beer, new car, new phone etc) one has to constantly consume and consume again, merely to keep the gap at a minimum. Bauman contends that in the post post-modern (he refers to it as liquid modernity) times we live in the pace of everything is higher. Electronic communications and social media facilitate a much greater rate of information transfer. As a slight aside this has increased our fear (unsurprisingly, called liquid fear by ZB) of the world we live in. In general the rates of bad things happening hasn’t risen (proportionally) but the speed and ease with which we hear of them has.

Advertisers need also to create the feeling in consumers that there is always a new ideal. Fashion is the epitome of this as it is ever-changing, liquid. One has to invest so much time absorbing what is the latest ideal, then resources to consume to conform – or even come closer – to it. Only by engaging in this constant quest can the cognitive dissonance be kept at bay, made tolerable. Effective advertising relies on the consumer never questioning why but merely striving  to avoid the deep rooted mental discomfort.  Little wonder that the personal borrowing rate has rocketed in the UK

Having a teenage daughter is an excellent way to observe this at work. It is a constant challenge, as whilst empathising with her feelings (I was a teen too once upon a time) of the need to conform or, even better, to be ‘fresh everyday’ (her phrase!), trying to highlight the absurdity of chasing a moving target that can never be caught is the really tough thing to do. And, that is the point, it can never be caught. It is an unobtainable goal regardless of the resources at one’s disposal.


Context is Everything

Contextualising data with software is making me ponder. Doing this well has got to be the Holy Grail at the moment and I have yet to see someone shout from the rooftops that they have a good algorithm for doing so. If I had sussed it I’d be keeping schtum as well though.

“You’ve taken my remark out of context” is an often heard device used when arguing. By making this challenge you are implying that whomever is challenging your statement fails to understand the fundamentals, making it a powerful form of rebuttal. By taking a piece of data out of context when the user is web browsing or shopping is an opportunity that has been wasted forever. It feels intrusive and annoying and at best is just ignored. Just imagine being able to get it right more often than not. £££

When serving ads or upselling to people by using an offering that is timely, relevant and not intrusive , by accurately contextualising the data you hold, is a very tricky process because there is more than one type of context. Personal, cultural, political, social and so on and so forth. it’s a minefield. Presently this is a practise in it’s infancy and what the end user gets is pretty generic. I don’t think it’ll be that long before we see software trying to address the challenge of determining how to contextualise a piece of data by using one or a combination of the types of context.

Trying to do some research using – what else? – Google I typed in “software for contextualising data and serving ads” and was just presented with Ad’s for ad serving software and “experts” to help you (spend your hard earned I daresay). The interesting thing was the images that lead me further in. The point is that w. Google dominating the search market (65% of all searches apparently) then Google are big influencers of context. Cultural, political, social etc. I know of the famous Do No Evil statement. What about unconscious bias thought?  This is an interesting paper by Christian Fuchs in Fast Capitalism – albeit a bit too Marxist for me it raises some interesting points.

Now that’s got me wondering about something entirely different. Hmm, my brain is aching.

Who is “the customer”

Easy huh? The person who buys your product. Doh. Possibly there is more to it.

What if you use a distribution channel like a Reseller (in IT lingo) or a supermarket, Cash and Carry, corner store etc? Take Heinz Baked Beans – a staple in our home –  for example. There are the packaging and raw materials suppliers (they must buy tons of beans – geddit?) to Heinz, the supermarkets and wholesalers that Heinz supplies, the smaller shop-keeps that buy from the wholesaler and the likes of you and me that buy from the supermarkets, corner stores and CostCo‘s of this world. Suddenly there are many more customers in the equation as money is changing hands between a host of parties.

However, not all are buying Heinz Baked Beans in the same way. Heinz itself is buying the raw materials to make the beans so as the product originator we can move their eligibility to one side. That leads the others in the supply chain. I’d argue that resellers are buying more of a commodity item as they are buying beans in bulk to meet consumer (that’s you and me again) demand. The consumer is the one choosing the Heinz brand over – for example, Crosse and Blackwell – other baked bean brands. Although our money makes it to Heinz some of the amount is kept by the suppliers in the chain.Except, hang on a moment here, the resellers are specifying Heinz and not generic beans. Can they buy Heinz from more than one source? Now there is a competitive marketplace that isn’t seen by the general public.

Heinz Baked Beans - Woolworths QV AUD1.32

Although Heinz doesn’t sell to the consumer we are the one of the many customers. Look at where the marketing is directed. The consumer is sold the “Beanz Meanz Heinz” concept and the retailer fulfils our demand. This is the entire thing simplified.

All pretty convoluted eh? Nonetheless, I’d contend that there are many customers involved and their needs are often totally different. I want 1 can for my lunch and Sainsburys want 100,000 cans for stores dotted all over the land.

What this means is that customers can be directly “related” to you – me and Sainsburys – or removed several times – me and H.J. Heinz – but they are customers nonetheless.

The real lesson is in understanding that “the customer” is often not just someone involved in a direct relationship with the manufacturer. Think about this before making assumptions about who “the customer” really is.

’nuff of this talk. I have some cold beans (Heinz, obviously) and sausages in the fridge. Nom nom.