Math Men: The ad industry shift from tempting to targeting

Advertisers don’t just want to sell you something, they want to know what you’ll buy before you do.
CGI imagery graphically imagining data-based psychological and behavioural profiling. (Castlewood Productions)

Along with all the Cyber Monday deals this week, you may have also noticed all the Cyber Monday advertising. It's a day when we seem to be particularly bombarded by the ads that chase us around online to point us to shopping sites and other offers.   

These days, feeling swamped by ads is hardly surprising. In 2005 the world spent about $200 billion on advertising. By 2015 that number rose to a staggering $600 billion.

What might be more surprising is just how much advertisers know about us. They're constantly gathering more and more information to try and figure out what we want to buy and when we want to buy it. Advertising today is less about big campaigns and more about big data.

Scott Harper is documentary filmmaker based in Toronto. His latest film You're Soaking In It examines advertising in the age of algorithms. The film just had its television premiere on the Documentary Channel. It chronicles how the advertising business has shifted from Madison Avenue to Silicon Valley.
Times Square advertising in New York City is estimated to have 1.5 million impressions each day. It has been called more art the advertising. On an average day 300-thousand pedestrians enter the area, while another115-thousand vehicle passengers pass through. (Castlewood Productions)

"I think what they're doing is trying to create a profile of you that is so sophisticated… they can tell what you're going to do before you actually do it," Scott says.

Scott, who was the director, writer, and co-producer of the film, believes this represents a real sea change in advertising. "They're really watching what you're doing all the time, gathering more and more data points and using that to figure out what you might want to buy next."
YouTube’s ubiquitous SKIP AD button introduced in 2010 often appears after a countdown during lengthy ads. (Castlewood Productions)

Scott spoke to many longtime advertising executives who remember the era when advertising was more about 'the big idea'. There was more focus on creative campaigns and storytelling and less on data and research. "There's a lot of frustration in seeing the business arguably devolve into what it is now."

But Scott says he was also reminded by those executives that the field is always changing.

"This is a period in time. And it may well evolve back the other way."


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