Last week, I said we didn’t like advertising. Admittedly, that was a blanket statement.
In response, MediaPost reader Kevin VanGundy wrote: “I've been in advertising for 39 years and I think the premise that people don't like advertising is wrong. People don't like bad advertising.”
I think there’s truth in both statements. The problem here is the verb I chose to use: “like.” The future of advertising hangs not on what we like, but on what we accept. Like is an afterthought. By the time we decide whether we like something or not, we’ve already been exposed to it. It’s whether we open the door to that exposure that will determine the future of advertising. So let’s dig a little deeper there, shall we?
First, since we started with a blanket statement, let’s spend a little time unpacking this idea of “liking” advertising. As VanGundy agreed, we don’t like bad advertising.
The problem is that most advertising is bad, in that it’s not really that relevant to us “in the moment.” Even with the best programmatic algorithms currently being used, the vast majority of the targeted advertising presented to me is off the mark. It’s irrelevant and interruptive, which makes it irritating.
Let’s explore how the brain responds to this. Our brains love to categorize and label, based on our past experience. It’s the only way we can sort through and process the tsunami of input we get presented with on a daily basis.
So, just like my opening sentence, the brain makes blanket statements. It doesn’t deal with nuance very well, at least in the subconscious processing of stimuli. It quickly categorizes into big generic buckets and sorts the input, discarding most of it as unworthy of attention and picking the few items of interest out of the mix.
In this way, our past experience predicts our future behavior, in terms of what we pay attention to. And if we broadly categorize advertising as irritating, this will lessen the amount of attention we’re willing to pay to it.
As a thought experiment to support my point, think of what you would do if you were to click on a news story in the Google results, and when you arrive at the article page, you get the pop-up informing you that you had your ad blocker on. You have been given two options: whitelist the page so you receive advertising, or keep your ad-blocker on and read the page anyway.
I’m betting you would keep your ad blocker on. It’s because you were given a choice and that choice included the option to avoid advertising -- which you did because advertising annoys you.
To further understand why the exchange that forms the foundation of advertising is crumbling, we have to understand that much of the attentional-focused activity in the brain is governed by a heuristic algorithm constantly calculating trade-offs between resources and reward. It governs our cognitive resources by predicting what would have to be invested versus what the potential reward might be.
This subconscious algorithm tends to be focused on the task at hand. Anything that gets in the way of the contemplated task is an uncalculated investment of resources. And the algorithm is governed by our past experience and broad categorizations. It you have categorized advertising as “bad,” the brain will quickly cut that category out of consideration.
The investment of attention is not warranted given the expected reward. If you did happen to be served a “good” ad that managed to make it into consideration -- based on an exception to our general categorization that advertising is annoying -- that can change, but the odds are stacked against it.
It’s just that low-probability occurrence that the entire ad industry is built on.
Finally, let’s look at that probability. In the past, the probability was high enough to warrant the investment of ad dollars. The probability was higher because our choices were fewer. Often, we only had one path to get to what we sought, and that path led through an ad. The brain had no other available options.
That’s no longer the case. Let’s go back to our ad-blocker example.
Let’s say the pop-up didn’t give us a choice, and we had to whitelist to see the article. The resource-reward algorithm kicks into action: What are the odds we could find the information ad-free elsewhere? How important is the information to us? Will we ever want to come back to this site to read another article?
Perhaps we give in and whitelist. Or perhaps we just abandon the site with a sour taste in our mouth. The latter has been happening more and more, which is why we see fewer news sites offering the whitelist-or-nothing option now. The probability of our market seeing an ad is dropping because they have more ad-free alternatives. Or at least they think they do.
It’s this thought -- precisely this thought -- that is eroding the foundation of advertising, whether we like it or not.