Can Ads Work Without Targeting?

We’ve grown fond of thinking that we need data, data, and more data to have ads that work. That data bias has driven the creativity right out of the industry, and with it the consumer’s tolerance for advertising in general. And yet, many ads used to succeed and even still do, without targeting customers through data mining. These are the ads consumers didn’t mind, and they’re the ones that will survive GDPR, Facebook, and all the other horror stories about digital advertising.

“Old school” ads worked by simply raising awareness. Many pharmaceutical ads still work this way. They are usually bought in mass media, which pretty much targets everyone. And the message is something like “if you suffer from X, ask your doctor about Y.” Some of them, like one prize-winning ad for Vytorin, a cholesterol-lowering drug, gave even more detailed information to tell viewers that high cholesterol was due partly to genetics and partly to what you eat. But it was still information.

Some travel ads also simply give information. “Vacation on the beach for only $599 a week.” An ad like this makes almost anyone aware that this advertiser is offering a sale or a good value on a beach vacation. Airlines and hotels often advertise this way during slow seasons.

Yet other ads try to persuade. Occasionally, the persuasion is pretty overt. But ads can also signal things about products and services without being overtly persuasive. For example, SuperBowl ads very seldom try to persuade game-watchers of anything. However, they signal that the company that buys an ad is financially able to afford it, and thus is more trustworthy than some upstart brand. Or, if the brand is buying an ad for the first time, the signal is that there’s a new disruptive company in town, taking over from the incumbents.

Another way ads can work without targeting is by making promises. “If you buy this product, you will look like/feel like/live like the person seen in the ad.” Some of the promises are explicit, like automobile ads that promise a 100,000 warranty, and some are implicit, like the promises made by anti-aging products or skin creams.

A good brand knows that when it makes a promise, it has to keep that promise, or the brand will lose its good reputation. When an airline says its flights are 99% on time, it had better be able to support that promise, or we will soon see the end of the brand’s primacy in the consumer’s mind.

The last way ads can work without data-driven targeting is through context: in other words, by being placed around content that aligns with the brand’s philosophy, the consumer’s interest, or the type of publication. The best example of this is New Yorker ads, which contain a preponderance of luxury items and items that appeal to intelligent, educated people. These are audience-based ads, and they are not designed for a specific customer, but rather for a specific audience.

We have long attempted to persuade the industry that all this data can cloud, rather than clarify, the goals of an advertising campaign, and we are happy to see the industry coming around to this. We can have a very healthy advertising industry without over-using consumer data and violating consumer privacy rights.