An Industry Named 'Sue': Let's Just Ditch 'Behavioral'

You folks reading this are advertisers and marketers, right? You know the importance of good branding, yes? Then can someone tell me how you of all people ended up branding a critical component of digital marketing's future with such a terrible name?  

At last week's OMMA Behavioral show in New York, I found that one of the more pertinent comments actually came before the formal agenda began. In a pre-show sponsor segment, Audience Science CEO Jeff Hirsh mentioned off-handedly that his company had helped coin the term "behavioral targeting," a label that in retrospect he regrets.

 In fact, this is a real issue. The label "behavioral" has become an albatross around the neck of the industry, because the term itself has connotations that seem to raise red flags in ways that other similar practices don't. Virtually all of the online metrics practices -- from ad auditing to site analytics -- involve the same fundamental tracking technologies that BT networks use, but t aren't labeled as such.



Run the Ghostery browser plug-in on most popular and respected news sites, and you will see a pop-up list of beacons and cookies that have uniquely identified your desktop and its travels through the site. Only a few of them can be attributed to what we traditionally call a "behavioral targeting" technology. You have been tagged by a host of entities not usually associated with BT.

Most of the offline direct mail and database marketing tactics of the last decades arguably use even more invasive and personally identifiable purchase and customer service "histories." Surely these methods are as behaviorally based as anything done online. And yet, it is "behavioral advertising" that has been singled out for special attention, chosen from a host of technologies and other marketing methods that are quite similar.

What's in a name?

A little historical background is in order, because this industry probably should have cracked a cultural history text before it took to naming itself. If someone had checked, they would have seen that "behavioral" has been a third rail in American culture for nearly a century. Frankly, you guys should have run from this term as soon as it occurred to you. "Behavioral" has been cultural Kryptonite for a very long time.

I know whereof I speak. In my previous life as a media and cultural historian, my doctoral dissertation focused on a confederacy of "popular intellectuals" between the World Wars who were finding ways to integrate modern philosophical and ideological trends into everyday culture. Among the most influential in my cast of characters was the "father of behaviorism," psychologist John B. Watson. Long story short, Watson championed the notion that humans were not thinking creatures so much as bundles of habits. His draconian prescriptions for child-rearing (precise scheduling and weird toilet training regimens) made him one of the most infamous professors in American in the late teens and early '20s. Watson, run out of his psychology teaching post at Johns Hopkins because of a sexual affair, landed at J. Walter Thompson as the first practitioner of psychological approaches to ad creative.

Yes, Watson was one root for much of the "scientific" wing of ad research, including the occasional silly forays into "subliminal advertising" that Vance Packard sensationalized in the '60s. In fact, that series of bestsellers supposedly blowing the lid off advertising's nefarious attempts to influence buying habits subconsciously was the second historical instance when advertising and "behavioral" were negatively conjoined in the public mind.

Indeed, rarely has anything good come from the public mentions of "behavioral." Those of you as ancient as I must also recall the controversial B.F. Skinner, yet another "behavioral psychologist" who attracted controversy by creating a "box" that would modify a baby's behavior through a controlled environment. That went over about as well as Watson's toilet-training ideas.

It is no great secret why the term "behavioral" accrued such negative connotations in the last century. People associate the term and its common usage in psychology or advertising with forces beyond cognition and active agency. For good or ill, "behavioral" tends to mean unfair or subconscious influence - not  just creepy. In a "free country" grounded in "free will" and the "free exchange of ideas," a culture and a politics founded from the intellectual firmament of the Enlightenment, "behavioral" sounds, well, un-American to some ears, fascistic to others.

Honestly, it is hard to feign surprise about the special scrutiny this field gets from government and consumer groups. As every BT insider complains, offline marketing and database techniques have employed much more troubling tracking methods, and yet the online piece is called out. Is it just that the digital component adds to the suspicion and fear? Yeah, sure. But a little history shows that you guys pretty much put a target on your backs from the beginning. You named the boy "Sue."

Truth be told, at the very first OMMA Behavioral (and pretty much every one since), we at MediaPost discussed whether there is a better term for "behavioral targeting" for these shows and for this column. "Targeting" is too broad and encompasses a host of other techniques, while "data" is not narrow enough to describe some of the unique attributes of a technology that leverages user history. "Historical targeting?" Nah. Google keeps trying "interest based advertising," but that feels like a dodge.

"Audience targeting?" "User targeting?" "Relevant advertising?" Or, as Johnny Cash once sang: "Bill or George! Anything but Sue!"

12 comments about "An Industry Named 'Sue': Let's Just Ditch 'Behavioral'".
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  1. Todd Tilley from Wrecking Ball Media, March 5, 2010 at 12:54 p.m.

    Excellent Article and completely agree with you and I am a big Johnny Cash fan! Good Insights!

  2. David Scrim from Dotomi, March 5, 2010 at 1:04 p.m.

    "Personalized Media"

  3. Roger Wilson from The Conference Department, Inc., March 5, 2010 at 1:05 p.m.

    "Targetting" doesn't carry very positive connotations either. I've never liked thinking of my prospects as hunted creatures whom I am trying to hit.

  4. Patrick Madden from I-Behavior, March 5, 2010 at 1:08 p.m.

    What about "Relevance Targeting"?

  5. Robert Formentin from *, March 5, 2010 at 1:27 p.m.

    I must respectfully correct the record and Jeff Hirsch in this story. The term "Behavioral Targeting" was first coined in May 1997 in a Press Release issued by Infoseek Corp. on the development of Ultramatch, our, and I believe the market's, first audience targeting technology. James Revell helped develop it in early 1997.We used "audience targeting" but most buyers responded to the term "behavioral targeting".

    Let's not re-write history.

  6. Kelly Dechiaro from Chiaro Designs, March 5, 2010 at 1:43 p.m.

    It's needs a positive spin so that consumers can understand the value in it. All they keep hearing is that advertisers are invading their privacy and tracking them with cookies. It gives the impression of a creepy stalker. Agree with Roger that "targeting" is not a friendly word either. We should take the route the hospitality has - something like "exclusively customized advertising".

  7. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, March 5, 2010 at 2:03 p.m.

    Opening Pandora's Box? Talk about controversial. People in a box - your daughter's future rapist can be denied that title because he is kept in a box (prison) and then there are those damned psycho-bastards who kidnap and keep people in a box to control their behavior. You know as a historian what behavior modification implies both on the negative as well as positive.

    Advertising is designed to change/enhance/glorify/modify purchasing behavior otherwise what's the point? Of course, this does not mean bad behavior, just behavior.

    Advertising has been targeting their audience ever since there was an audience.

    You have a problem of what BTing implies but that is what it is. Scale back the verbiage, and when the BTing goes deeper into your private life - that which does not now, will whether legal or not - it will creep deeply until you could find you into the mental box you didn't expect. You may believe it is a fine wine you are drinking, but it is really cool aide. Caveat emptor.

  8. John Jainschigg from World2Worlds, Inc., March 5, 2010 at 2:28 p.m.

    I like 'personalized media.' On the other hand, the history of 'personalization' hasn't been entirely happy, and I cringe at the semantic corruption inherent in hawking "a custom online sales-pitch, made with love, just for you, by quadcore cluster servers running MySQL!" as if it were a monogram on a Tiffany picture-frame. (grin)

    What about "mapped media?" That's at least conceptually accurate, connotes a technical process (which is where the value is), and admits to some degree of anonymity (i.e., -- however well we target you, you're still just a dot on a map) instead of emphasizing intrusion.

    Also, the opposite of "maps" is "spam," which is sort of the point -- spam being old-school, random, quantity-over-quality (and painfully intrusive in its own way) as opposed to the kinder, gentler, more resource-sparing potential of BT. It says 'relevant' without so many letters.

  9. Robert Hof, March 5, 2010 at 2:29 p.m.

    I always wondered why "personalized advertising" wasn't used from the outset:

  10. Ned Newhouse from, March 5, 2010 at 2:35 p.m.

    What about "far less intrusive interactive advertising than direct mail" ?

  11. Jules Polonetsky from Future of Privacy Forum, March 5, 2010 at 3:05 p.m.

    Actualy, our focus group tests, and an online survey with 2600 consumers showed that interest based ads made sense to people. Studies are at our site

  12. Jeffrey Chester from CDD, March 7, 2010 at 1:32 p.m.

    You can change the name, but it doesn't affect the business practices and its privacy impact. Better spend more time working to address privacy and consumer protection concerns--and less time on data collection `spin.'

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