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The evolution of advertising: Is ‘relevance’ the answer? | Ctrl-Shift

Posted on: Monday 14th of March 2016

The second installment of our blog trilogy on the crisis in the advertising industry.

In last week’s blog, we looked at why consumers don’t like advertising, and why the value exchange that underpins the modern industry is degrading.

The growing value imbalance in modern advertising, especially online, is why huge bets are now being placed on the quest for data-driven ‘relevance’ – serving up ads on the basis of data about individuals, their behaviours and interests.


Why ‘relevance’ isn’t always relevant

But ‘relevance’ in its current form is not the panacea it’s made out to be.

First, some of the most important ways in which advertising works have nothing to do with relevance. Take brand/product awareness. Awareness is an involuntary act. You can’t choose to become unaware of something you have been made aware of. Awareness drives favourability because something you are aware of seems (unconsciously) less risky than something you’ve never heard of. In this way, advertising can be ‘effective’ regardless of what the ad says, where it pops up or how ‘relevant’ it is.

Costly signalling is another driver of relevance-free advertising effectiveness. The very fact that someone is investing lots of money advertising something sends a powerful signal that they are serious, credible and willing to put their reputations behind their products. Again, this has nothing to with what the ad says, where it pops up or how ‘relevant’ it is.

In addition, relevance isn’t a binary Yes/No. Different types of advertising need different degrees of relevance to work. The only relevance brand awareness really needs is that, at some point in the future, the individual might consider buying the product. Contextual relevance – gardening ads in a gardening magazine – is extremely powerful. But it doesn’t require any information about the individual to work.

There are, of course, many instances where an ad that is relevant to the individual’s current interests can add value (e.g, ads about hotels when you are researching a holiday). But it’s not a slam dunk.

  • Much of what passes for relevance today is actually guesswork based on limited, narrow data sets. Real relevance needs to be relevant to current mood, mode, context, purpose – which only the individual knows.
  • The other side of the coin – ‘total’ relevance requires a total invasion of the individual’s privacy: knowing everything about them. What we gain along one dimension we lose on another.
  • ‘Relevant’ advertising is still a ‘do it you’  done ‘to’ the individual, signalling an unhealthy relationship.
  • An ad may be ‘relevant’ in the sense that it relates to something that the individual is interested in, but that doesn’t guarantee that the content of the ad will be useful or helpful.

The net conclusion is that while increased relevance may be part of the answer, it is only a part of the answer. A deeper re-think is needed: one that recasts the ‘value exchange’ at the heart of advertising. That’s the subject of Part 3 of this blog