from the the-uncanny-valley-of-advertising dept
In robotics, there’s a concept of the “uncanny valley,” which suggests that people are comfortable with robots that clearly look like robots, but at a point where they become too similar to humans, but not actually human-like, the feeling makes people rather uncomfortable. However, if a robot appears fully human, then people go back to being comfortable with them — even to the point of identifying with them and feeling empathy for them. It’s that area where they’re just a little too much like a human, but not quite there that makes people really uncomfortable. I’m beginning to wonder if there’s a similar phenomenon with advertising. Perfectly targeted advertising could be quite useful — and, in fact, that’s the holy grail that advertisers always talk about. The problem, though, is that most personalized advertising isn’t that well targeted, and it’s reaching the point that it makes people rather uncomfortable.
Last week all the attention was on Phorm, the former adware company, now trying to work with ISPs to use your clickstream data to target ads better. While the company is aggressively defending its practices, it clearly makes people somewhat uncomfortable — and all of the hubbub about the story has resulted in at least one ISP partner of Phorm to decide that it will only offer the program on an opt-in basis. That sounds good, though, as Broadband Reports notes, Phorm competitor NebuAd had promised that any of its ISP partners would clearly let customers know what it was doing with its targeted advertisements, and that doesn’t appear to be happening.
All this has lead the NY Times to write an article about how much data is being tracked about you in order to target ads better. There’s nothing particularly new or surprising (hopefully) in that article, but an even more interesting question is raised by the same author in a separate blog post, where she went and asked Microsoft, Yahoo, Google and AOL if they could create advertisements that incorporated the user’s name in the advertisement as an attempt to personalize it. The answers are quite interesting, with very different levels of “could” and “would” responses from the various participants.
But the real issue with such ads are that they may be getting quite close to that “uncanny valley” of advertising. When the ads on a random page start saying “Hi, Mike, we think you’d like…” it reaches that level where it throws in your face just how much data is being collected about you, and I’d imagine that makes people quite uncomfortable. In some ways, this is part of what made people so damn uncomfortable with Facebook’s Beacon program. It was making use of data in a very public way for supposedly more “personalized” ads. However, they ended up in that “creepy” valley between not very personalized and perfectly personalized where the ad is actually effective. For companies working on better ad targeting and more personalized ads, it’s going to pay to be aware of this issue going forward.