Finding The Right Edge Of Creepy In Advertising

What, exactly, makes a digital ad creepy?

This is a question many people would prefer to ignore, instead abandoning social media or even the Internet altogether. (It’s easy to fear what you don’t understand, and easier still to run from what you fear.) But as the CEO of a data-centric ad tech company, thinking about this is one of the most important responsibilities I have.

Here’s why I cannot ignore this problem: It’s not just advertisers that want to deliver more relevant -- and therefore, more effective -- ads. Study after study confirms that consumers prefer relevant ads as well. It seems pretty clear that sitting through a video about a product you might be interested in feels like less of a waste of time than having to watch an ad for erectile dysfunction medication when you’re not in the market for it.

This is exactly the kind of “dumb” advertising that I get exposed to every week when I watch NFL games, for example. The advertisers know generally what kinds of products football fans might be in the market for, but as the pool of total NFL fans continues to expand, ads get less and less relevant. 

The dynamics are the exact opposite in digital. The more people who use a given social network, for example, the more specific information advertisers have about audience types, and the larger and more specific targetable audiences become. In a space like this, E.D. ads are more likely to land in front of someone who might actually appreciate hearing about his options for treatment.

Yet when this kind of thinking goes too far, digital advertising gets creepy.

Here’s the truth about digital advertising, which is also true of other Big Data-driven answers to human problems being developed today: More contextual data means more relevant matching. We call this kind of technology “smart” for a reason. At one end of the spectrum we have “creepy” advertising. But just short of “creepy” is “smart” advertising, and at the other end of the spectrum we have annoying, “dumb” advertising.

Here’s another truth about this dichotomy: Nobody wants either of those extremes to win in the end. 

I don’t want to make the world creepier or dumber. I want to make it better. And by the way, everyone else with any real skin in the game, staking their reputation on personalized advertising, feels the same. 

The brands that deliver ads on social don’t want “creepy” any more than they want “dumb,” either. They want to deliver a more personalized experience to their audiences to create more positive relationships with their customers.

Finally, the social networks we advertise on want to create better services, too. They want their sites to be more valuable, more personal. None of them have a secret mission to make the world a creepier or dumber place to live.

This means that the only thing left for any of us to do is to find the balance between creepy and relevant.

You could probably point to a creepy ad you experienced in the past. You know it when you see it. But a good definition is actually more evasive than you might think.

Social gives consumers the chance to provide this feedback in real time, saying either “Thanks for the relevant ad!” or “Yuck. That was creepy.” This is what we really talk about when we use buzzwords like “customer-owned relationships” and “permission marketing.” This is the conversation brands are really having with their customers today.

Ultimately, what creepy really looks like is an ethical question, and ethics is rarely a black-and-white landscape. The shades of grey are what make it interesting, problematic and worth pursuing all at once. For me at least, it’s one reason why the work of advertising is more important than ever.

15 comments about "Finding The Right Edge Of Creepy In Advertising".
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  1. Mike Einstein from the Brothers Einstein, November 18, 2014 at 12:17 p.m.

    This is idiotic. If we'd asked the right question initially - Do you want any ads? - we'd realize than no one outside our industry wants them at all, relevant or otherwise. There's a huge difference between desire and tolerance, and given the option, no one would choose the clutter.

  2. Leonard Zachary from T___n__, November 18, 2014 at 12:27 p.m.

    A person buys a computer and a mobile device. It's private property and if someone steals it - its a felony. A person then tries to opt out of the zillion tracking cookies hibernating on their computer and further app tracking on their mobile device but to no avail. Absolute disregard for the privacy rights of the user - now that is creepy. Tracking cookies are like video cameras on your front lawn which is private property. Net neutrality needs to include open and honest rules of the road for tracking of users on their personal and private property.

  3. Ari Rosenberg from Performance Pricing Holdings, LLC, November 18, 2014 at 12:41 p.m.

    Hi Jamie, this is a great topic and you covered it with "small words" that make the problem you are passionate about solving easy to understand. So thank you -- here is my but -- I believe the creepiness emotion consumers feel is deeper than most of us in the industry give credence to. You point out ways to react to these ads so they become more relevant in the future, but the problem lies in the past -- consumers are creeped out because the data driving these relevant ads was taken without their permission. Had data collection been "opt in" from the very beginning, the creepiness consumers feel now would be "oh wow this is working" instead -- see the difference?

  4. Jamie Tedford from Brand Networks Inc., November 18, 2014 at 1:10 p.m.

    @mikeeinstein- I look forward to your contrarian commentary on every post. If there's another way to say "nobody wants ads" I'm confident you'll surface it in this thread. Keep on keeping us media peeps honest.

  5. Jamie Tedford from Brand Networks Inc., November 18, 2014 at 1:17 p.m.

    @Leonard - I agree, transparency is directly related to the "creepiness factor." This shouldn't be confused with illegal use or abuse of customer data and federally regulated privacy laws. That's beyond creepy, it's illegal.

  6. Jamie Tedford from Brand Networks Inc., November 18, 2014 at 1:21 p.m.

    @Ari- you make a very good point. Whether the expectation is "opt -in" or simply more transparency and ease in an "opt out" scenario, the question remains the same: what are consumers willing to trade/endure for more personalized advertising? There's a quid pro quo that we all as marketers need to better understand. Thanks for progressing that conversation Ari.

  7. Mike Einstein from the Brothers Einstein, November 18, 2014 at 1:32 p.m.

    Jamie, Ari supports my contention in a left-handed way when he ties relevance to the act of opting in. But real freedom isn't the chance to opt out of somethig, it's the right to decide whether or not to opt in in the first place. We shouldn't have to opt out of crap we don't want, and I believe that if ads were delivered only to those who asked for them, we'd all be out of business, and deep down you know I'm right.

  8. Peter Feinstein from Higher Power Marketing, November 18, 2014 at 4:38 p.m.

    For me, the beauty of advertising in social media is that I typically don't see it. I'd estimate that 99.9% of it doesn't register with me... and the ultra-tiny 1/10th of a percent that does - the two times I've clicked on ads - that look like posts, on LinkedIn, I've enjoyed the comments torching the advertiser and their ad so much that I didn't have to bother with continuing to the actual ad. There isn't anyone on social media who goes there to be hit with ads - 'relevant' or not -smart or creepy. It's just not why they are there. They are there, ostensibly, for the social-communing... such as it virtually is. My wish is that everything online would follow the permission principle: Unless I expressly grant you permission to advertise to me, keep out and do not approach me. That's the standard by which all digital advertising should have to adhere. Then all the conversation about privacy, relevance, good, bad, creepy or smart, just disappears into the nothingness where it belongs.

  9. Doug Garnett from Protonik, LLC, November 18, 2014 at 4:55 p.m.

    I think this discussion is missing one critical truth. This all seems based on the assumption: "Study after study confirms that consumers prefer relevant ads as well." I agree with that statement. But I'll suggest we balance it with a different observation: "advertisers aren't CAPABLE of delivering relevant advertising using targeting without making consumers feel they are being stalked".

  10. Ari Rosenberg from Performance Pricing Holdings, LLC, November 18, 2014 at 5:04 p.m.

    wow this is a solid exchange! Jamie I like your style -- I do think "ease in opting out" is a wives tale at this point -- nothing easy about it -- I bet if this was all "opt in" it would be a whole lot easier :) -- thanks for responding to these comments you're a pro

  11. Jamie Tedford from Brand Networks Inc., November 18, 2014 at 5:10 p.m.

    Thanks for sharing your perspective @Peter. I generally agree with your "permission principle" but I would argue following or liking a brand has been a pretty explicit handshake between users and marketers. Increasingly, FB in particular has made it even easier to manage that permission with a click of a mouse.

  12. Cece Forrester from tbd, November 18, 2014 at 5:10 p.m.

    Once upon a time people bought newspapers partly because they wanted the ads. The nice thing about how newspaper ads worked in their heyday is that they didn't jump up and interrupt you, you could turn the page, so opting wasn't an issue. Yet you knew what section and day to find certain categories when you were ready to buy some furniture, a car, theater tickets, groceries, and wanted to browse the current sources, products and deals. I was going to say I miss that model. Except it's not entirely gone. The papers will be pretty hefty with inserts right before Black Friday, won't they? And then on Super Bowl Sunday and after, people will be talking about their favorite commercials like they were entertainment. (Relevance is almost a side issue there.) So maybe it's not a matter of people not wanting any ads and maybe it's not even a matter of making a perfect match; it's a matter of how the ads treat them.

  13. Jamie Tedford from Brand Networks Inc., November 18, 2014 at 5:42 p.m.

    @doug- I think it's a bit of a broad stroke to align all targeting with stalking. The entire ad tech industry (publishers, advertisers, enabling technology) puts the power of targeting into the hands of humans and the algorithms of machines. We are certainly "capable" of using this power for good. All of this is only sustainable if we find the "edge of creepy" and step away from that edge!

  14. Peter Feinstein from Higher Power Marketing, November 18, 2014 at 5:54 p.m.

    Thanks for your reply Jamie... nice to have a genuine exchange! My desire with something like FB, or Twitter, or others, is that they not keep track of me the way they try or actually do. It doesn't make me any more valuable to the companies they sell that information to because i don't respond to online ads. The value proposition, at least as it applies to me, doesn't. I know the online world has long-since zipped past the wisdom of permission-marketing, and to me that's too bad, because the value of gaining permission makes the value of the advertising presented based on the granting of that permission rise exponentially. We have to counsel our clients on the most powerful use of digital media, and it always comes down to screening out the uninterested, the 'bots and otherwise disengaged. We create the permission gateway on their behalf, and our clients see conversions from their digital advertising that compares quite favorably with their offline media. it IS possible, but only with great human care, and the application of permission-technology. At least that's been my experience.

  15. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, November 18, 2014 at 7:37 p.m.

    Yes, people would cut out an ad, put it on the fridge and take it to the store. They could see it and hold it. It was physically and emotionally rewarding through the entire act about a consumer choice to do so. Mobile doesn't have that connection and satisfaction. That's the good news. The tracking/creepiness/privacy invasions/stalking is the bad news.

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