A Short History of Targeted Advertising

There’s a reason “Mad Men” ended this spring. The show runners recognize that the early 70’s were about the end of the sexy, interesting period of advertising — the period where creative ruled and audiences was pretty much everybody.  It was assumed that advertising’s function was to influence, or perhaps to persuade the masses, and that mass media reached everybody.But in the 70’s,

the use of computer technology grew, reflecting a rediscovery of and growing emphasis on “empirical advertising” research and fact-based marketing during the decade. This practice was a reaction to the “creative revolution” of the 1960s and indicated a marked shift to a preference for discipline and accountability.

Targeted advertising didn’t really exist before the 70s, except perhaps by age and sex. and markets were segmented by demographics, if at all. But a new concept had already arisen from social scientists: psychographics. Psychographics changed everything by providing new ways to look at consumers and while at first ad agencies didn’t understand it, they quickly adopted it to keep their industry alive. It was something they could sell to brands.

Psychographics segmented consumers by more than just age, sex, and income. It began to take into account “lifestyle,” and to segment consumers into attitudes, beliefs, opinions and personality traits. Once the audience was segmented this way, media buys began to change as well. That led to the importance of media buyers, who could target the “right” audience rather than just the mass audience. Although the Audit Bureau of Circulations had existed since 1914, the information it provided consisted of little more than numbers of subscribers to print magazines.  The rise of radio and television meant that print magazines were’t the only way to reach audiences, and buyers began what has been a 50+ year quest for better data.  The media buyer had access to the data.

For publishers, this meant knowing much more about their readers or viewers or listeners than just how many there were. It meant segmenting themselves and their appeal to different “lifestyles.” In the 70s, new magazines were founded that didn’t even pretend to reach the masses: Cosmopolitan, a niche magazine for sexually free, economically independent women, was founded in 1965 but became big news in the 70s with the advent of “feminism,” which further segmented the female consumer, and the decade saw the proliferation of magazines aimed a young adults (“Teen”) or even people who liked gossip “People.”

Each new publication further fragmented the audience. For advertisers, this meant positioning a product in the marketplace to attract the psychographic to which the brand appealed:

In contrast to the “product era” of the 1950s and the “image/impression era” of the 1960s, “positioning” emerged as a primary ad strategy of the 1970s. In a media-oriented culture, marketers found it necessary to position a product in the consumer’s mind, both within the context of its own merits and strengths and in relation to its competitors.

And that’s how we got to the place we are now: the big data era, in which publishers must know everything about their visitors and make that information readily available to media buyers confronted by a dazzling array of opportunities. Those who don’t know will get swallowed up in the continued fragmentation of the advertising buy.