Does Internet advertising work at all?

The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson asks a dangerous question: Does Internet advertising work at all? My gut answer is that it can’t be terribly effective. Thompson sums up my personal instinct about advertising perfectly: “We seek information, so we’re more likely to trust it; marketing seeks us, so we’re more likely to distrust it.”1

Also, online advertising is plagued with problems like misleading stats reporting and the ‘I-was-gonna-buy-it-anyway bias’:

Let’s say I want to buy a pair of glasses. I live in New York, where people like Warby Parker. I’ve shopped for glasses at Warby Parker’s website. Facebook knows both of these things. So no surprise that today I saw a Warby Parker sponsored post on my News Feed.

Now, let’s say I buy glasses from Warby Parker tomorrow. What can we logically conclude? That Facebook successfully converted a sale? Or that the many factors Facebook considered before showing me that ad—e.g.: what my friends like and my past shopping behavior—are the same factors that might persuade anybody to buy a pair of glasses long before they signed into Facebook?

Maybe Facebook has mastered the art of using advertising to convert sales. Or maybe it’s mastered the art of finding people who were going to buy certain items anyway and showing them ads after they already made their decision. My bet is that the answer is (a) somewhere in the middle and (b) devilishly hard to accurately measure.

Nothing in this article was surprising, but it did make me wonder if this might be the most effective way to fight to get our online privacy back? In other words, rather than fighting Google or Facebook et al, why not reveal how ineffective the kind of crappy advertising that has made those companies some of the biggest in the world really is? If that money falls away, so will these corporate surveillance industries.


Dat footnote

  1. However, I do think that ‘brand awareness’ is a powerful side effect of good advertising, but this is hard to achieve with text ads or even flashing banners and annoying popovers.
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