Advertising: contextual vs. behavioral and why it matters

July 1, 2019

This might come as a surprise to some of you, but I haven't always worked with UX. In fact, my last few full time positions were at advertising agencies where I worked on advertising campaigns and not digital products and tools. This was a very different time, of course, as it was pre-content marketing, pre-influencers, and pre-"thought leaders" (shrugs). I spent nearly five years with advertising agencies like BBDO and Bates Y&R leading their digital efforts in online marketing land.

At the time (2005ish) Forsman & Bodenfors had just released their epic online campaign "Dream kitchens" for IKEA - a revolutionary campaign and everyone in the advertising industry wanted to catch-up. Back then, I regularly saw a new campaigns that made my jaw drop they were so inspiring. Even outside of digital, there were campaigns made that made the news even outside of our industry.

Today, the story is very different. Advertising campaigns don't garner the attention they used to and the quality has suffered. They are missing components that drove those mind-blowing advertising experiences. They simply lack that connection to their audience only achieved through creative, relevant storytelling.


The Sony Bravia advert with the bouncing balls and Honda - The Cog are adverts that still stand strong today. The Sony Bravia is nearly 15 years old and Honda The Cog is even older. These commercials are masterpieces. The craftsmanship in them is something I feel we don't see anymore. These commercials are not based around CGI and they're certainly not tailored to meet your specific interest. You know what they are? They are good stories.

See - even Tyron Lannister knows good marketing

The more companies know about their customers, the harder it seems for them to produce stories that are so universal they speak to everyone. They get stuck trying to find the perfect target audience for each message, but because their data points are so specific, the messaging gets lost and they waste an enormous amount of money.

Even one of the first successful viral video campaigns was based around a story everyone could relate to, a group of friends - just how TV shows like Seinfield and Friends are successful because they address topics that everyone can relate to.

Swap the landlines for iPhones and the ad would still work today.

Where's the creativity?

The annual tête-a-tête for the advertising industry is of course the Cannes Lions festival in France. I used to be super keen on seeing who would get nominated (I was even nominated myself for a campaign I had worked on in 2003!), but I just don't see the creativity anymore. One of this years winners - a gold lion - is Droga5's campaign for Apple. It's surely not a bad campaign in any way, but it's likely it'll just be completely forgotten in a year. Surely, it won't be referenced in blog posts more than 15 years from now!

The Apple campaign shows a team of people working hard to pitch an idea to their boss. So while there is a relatable story, there's zero connection to the greater audience.

What's wrong with advertising?

As companies collect more and more data about you and me, shouldn't their advertising feel even more spot-on for me? After all, they should know me, but in most cases now, I feel like I have no idea who they're talking to. Turns out, it's because they want to show me behavioral ads (aka The New Kid on the Block) and not contextual ads (like we've done for the past 100 years). Companies like Google and Facebook are compiling millions of data points on you to make the perfect profile, but still have no idea how to actually match these data points with advertising that works. Worse yet, they make a ton of money from selling these data points to advertisers (with the promise of being able to tailor ads that will fit me perfectly) so they have no interest in respecting your privacy.

They (Google & Facebook etc) argue that strong privacy laws would hurt the digital ad market, create high costs for businesses and curb innovation.

These are all weak arguments. There is no reason to fear that sites cannot still make money with advertising. That’s because there are already two kinds of highly profitable online ads: contextual ads, based on the content being shown on screen, and behavioral ads, based on personal data collected about the person viewing the ad. Behavioral ads work by tracking your online behavior and compiling a profile about you using your internet activities (and even your offline activities in some cases) to send you targeted ads.

Contextual advertising doesn’t need to know anything about you: Search for “car” and you get a car ad. Over the past decade, contextual ads have been displaced by behavioral ads, aided by the rise of real-time bidding technology that auctions off each ad on a site based on user profiling. These behavioral ads are the ones that leave a bad taste in your mouth. They follow you around from website to mobile app based on your private information and, intentionally or not, enable online discrimination, manipulation and the creation of filter bubbles.

Strong privacy laws will force the digital advertising industry to return to its roots in contextual advertising. That’s a good thing, since contextual advertising does not affect privacy in the same way.
What if we all just sold non-creepy ads?

What you can do

The upside to all of this is that behavioral ads only work when they have the correct data points. If you use services that choose to respect your privacy, the big tech will eventually have to rethink their stand on collecting data. But if you're the CMO or CEO of a company running ads, I'm sure you're thinking that moving to contextual advertising only will reduce your profits, at the end of the day, there's share holders to satisfy.

This shift back to contextual advertising need not reduce profitability. A recent poll by Digiday of publishing executives found that 45 percent of them saw no significant benefit from behavioral ads, and 23 percent said they actually caused a decline in revenue.

So if you're running a business, or if you're working for one, think about what you're building.

But whether you like it or not, what you build and what you create define who you are. It feels a bit crazy that anyone should have to say this. But if you’ve built a chaos factory, you can’t dodge responsibility for the chaos. Taking responsibility means having the courage to think things through. And there are few areas where this is more important than privacy. If we accept as normal and unavoidable that everything in our lives can be aggregated, sold, or even leaked in the event of a hack, then we lose so much more than data. We lose the freedom to be human.Tim Cook’s Stanford Commencement Address

History clearly shows us that you can do great advertising without being intrusive (look at the technology used in the Budweiser commercial and think about what "data points" you think they had). Great stories are timeless and attract everyone. It's time the industry recognizes this.

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