Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

NDA Viewpoints: We need to stop reducing people to data sets

By Verity Bouette, Account Director, Silence Media

People are at the heart of all advertising.

If brands are to influence people’s decisions effectively, they must understand the psychology behind human decision-making.

As Richard Shotton says in his book The Choice Factory, “advertisers must work with the grain of human nature as opposed to unproductively challenging it”.

Yet the digital advertising industry repeatedly reduces people to simple data sets. 

Want to reach people aged 25-30? There’s a segment for that. 

Looking for people intending to redecorate their house? Layering this data on your campaign means you’ll only reach them.  

I was genuinely once told that we didn’t win a pitch because somebody else had a data segment on people who were interested in beetroot. Data on people who were interested in beetroot

Even the language we use to talk about people dehumanises them — we target them, hit them.

Real people not data sets

The truth is, humans are far more complex than the categories we’re lumping them into. What we’re interested in one day might be entirely different the next. Our emotional mindset might sway our view, or we might be helping out a friend by searching for something we detest. 

Data sets aren’t always representative of who we are. They’re devised to claim – yet not necessarily deliver – legitimacy or success.

If we define pollution as something that harms the environment it is in, then we could say surveillance marketing is polluting the internet. 

It’s polluting it with badly targeted and creepy ads. 

When adtech companies track people from one website to another, with or without their permission, and make inferences about them using their data, all they’re doing is diminishing trust in the brand.

I may have searched recipe’s using beetroot once, but I’m not some beetroot fanatic. 

Famed adtech hater Bob Hoffman would argue that adtech and tracking degrade media and journalism, devaluing the work of legitimate publishers.

Aside from breeding public disdain, reducing people to data sets means we’re encouraged to eliminate anomalies, to ignore things that don’t fit the mould. 

We should be delving deeper into the reasoning behind them, not disregarding them. 

Behavioural science offers advertisers a way to embrace the nuances in human behaviour. 

We’ve already seen its principles adopted successfully by wider branding campaigns across other channels. 

KFC, for example, used a behavioural theory called the pratfall effect to overcome the crisis they faced when they ran out of chicken for an entire weekend. The pratfall effect states that people, or brands, become more likeable when they acknowledge their flaws. 

A simple tweaking of the letters that make up their brand signalled that they knew they made a mistake — they rolled out print and social assets that read ‘FCK’. 

Or when Apple launched its headphones. It was by no means the market leader and wasn’t as popular as the likes of Sony or Samsung, but its distinct, white product design feigned popularity. It stood out in the crowd.

Apple embraced a behavioural theory called social proof — the idea that if we believe something is popular, it becomes more desirable. 

Digital is late to the game.

For too long, technology appears to have trumped creativity. Creative, targeting and media-buying strategies should merge to effectively engage customers online and help brands grow. 

If we build creatives off the back of campaign data, we’re limiting creativity because we’re limited to the insight everybody has access to. 

Branching out into behavioural science significantly increases the creative possibilities.

We should be testing five, ten or even twenty creative variations. Then matching their performance to different variables across targeting and media-buying strategies to greater understand customers and help influence the broader marketing strategy. 

Behavioural science not only facilitates more creative ideas, but it also gives us a way to explain these ideas to clients and helps raise the status of digital advertising by giving it a theoretical grounding.

And to those who raise concerns about the ethicality of using behavioural science to influence behaviour, I’d say if you think the product is ethical, then advertising it should be, too.