Behaviorally targeted ads tend to get a lot of criticism for appearing to invade our privacy. However, a new report in the Journal of Consumer Research argues that targeted ads can beneficially alter a consumer’s perception of themselves — not just the brand that’s advertising to them.
The study, published on March 27, says that targeted ads could even make you donate more money to charity.
“Behavioral targeting” is an online marketing strategy that sends ads to people according to their past browsing history. This contrasts from ads which are targeted according to demographics (your age, gender, location, occupation,) or those ads which are not targeted and are shown to every person viewing that web page.
So how could behavioral targeting make you into a better person?
It all comes down to flattery
In the first study, which used 188 undergraduate students, there were two test groups. Both groups were offered a Groupon voucher for a “sophisticated” restaurant. Group A was told that this was as a result of their earlier browsing history, while Group B was told the ad had been targeted to them because of their demographic information. Group A were considerably more likely to purchase the voucher.
But why was this? The study goes on to suggest that we like ads targeted to us if they portray sophisticated tastes. More than this, if we realize that an ad is targeted, and that it portrays sophisticated tastes, we will in turn believe that we are more sophisticated than we did before seeing the ad.
To prove this, the behavioral scientists again divided participants into two groups. Both were shown ads for a high-end, “sophisticated” watch brand. Group A was told that the ad was targeted at them, while group B was told that it was not. After this, Group A evaluated themselves as more sophisticated than Group B. Group A was also more likely to buy the watch than Group B.
So, this kind of flattery can get consumers to buy more products. This encourages advertisers to be more transparent with targeted ads, when the ads they are targeting imply positive qualities, according to the researchers.
How targeted ads have an effect on users in the longer-run
However, where this gets really interesting is when we look at the effect of targeted ads on our behavior, beyond our immediate purchase intentions.
The third and final study claimed that the message behind the targeted ad (e.g. that we are sophisticated, or pro-environment) will stay with us in other contexts. Group A was given a behaviorally-targeted ad for a “Green, energy-free speaker crafted from sustainably sourced Colombian wood,” — i.e. an environmentally friendly product. The control group was given an ad for the same speaker but with a different description: “sleek, powerful speaker crafted from the hollow body of Colombian wood.”
After this experiment Group A perceived themselves as more green than the participants in the control group. They were more likely to buy the product, and even more likely to donate to a pro-environmental charity.
So, according to the report, by making consumers aware that the ads they are seeing (which imply positive qualities) are targeted to them because of past internet browsing, the viewer can be made to view themselves in a more positive light.
However, the study says nothing about the reverse. What about ads targeted by behaviour that imply more negative traits, like greed, or even un-sophistication? It seems likely that ads which imply these traits could have a correspondingly negative impact on our self-esteem.