Sorry, but advertising hasn’t become a perfect science

Silicon Valley wants you to believe that advertising can be boiled down to analytics. Don’t believe the hype.


(Photo: kenteegardin/Flickr)

“Advertising has reached the status of a science.” This might as well be engraved at the gates of Silicon Valley, if it had gates. It’s certainly the lullaby that rocks Mark Zuckerberg to sleep at night—him and a thousand pretenders to his throne. The idea that marketing can be automated and self-optimizing has been a corporate wet dream since before John Wanamaker famously complained about not knowing which half of his advertising budget he was wasting. Our continued faith in that dream has fuelled the development of the Internet and the advertising-subsidized businesses that thrive on it.

But here’s the punchline: an ad man named Claude Hopkins wrote these words in 1923, when Silicon Valley was just desert. As it turns out, what Hopkins said wasn’t true then, still isn’t, and may never be. With something as human as the business of selling things, revolutionary change never arrives quite as soon, or as decisively, as you think it will. Sure, the geeks have made their long trek from Silicon Valley to Madison Avenue, bringing their gospel of analytics with them. Their promise—perfect knowledge of consumer intent, pinpoint demographics, zero wasted ad dollars—is seductive, which is why it’s currently in vogue. But it’s a false idol.

Big Data is only the latest looming usurper to marketing’s status quo. In reality, of course, it’s just the next chapter in the Internet’s long seduction of capitalism. With digital marketing now well into its second decade, confidence is growing that we can not only precisely measure what consumers are doing, we can predict what they’ll do in the future. With this power, goes the logic, we can deliver to every human just what they’ll buy, and nothing they won’t. Consumers can bask in the warm glow of pure relevance, while corporations banish the waste that has always given marketing such a bad name. “Marketing,” wrote one breathless Harvard Business Review blogger last summer, “is dead.”

Nonsense. It’s not dead yet. The real revolution might even turn out to be its comeback—once we realize how much money Big Data leaves on the table.

This new science is proving better at lowering the cost of selling than it is at actually selling. The algorithms that serve ads and suggest products to us are still largely oblivious to context, and sometimes even to common sense. Shopping for a blender on Amazon is likely to result in blenders being all you see the next time you visit the site, no matter how much of a book lover your previous purchases declared you to be. It’s neither predictive nor tempting. Worse yet, consumers don’t even like the idea of behavioral targeting. One recent U.S. study showed that more than 60% of consumers distrust product advertising that’s “tailored to their interests.” The only kind of tailored ads they hated more were from political candidates.

Relying solely on math and analytics to guide commerce forecloses on the potentiality that capitalism is supposed to be all about. Statistics are backward looking. They assume that what we like now is what we will always like, and that we’re conscious of all of our needs and desires. Marketing becomes determinism, herding consumers into ever diminishing, ever more sharply defined circles until they’re trapped in their profiles. It’s hard to see, in a marketplace like that, how anyone would ever have thought to put baking soda in a refrigerator, or buy an iPad. Sometimes, we don’t know what we want until someone shows it to us out of the blue. That, in fact, is about the only way a market ever really grows, short of us just making more people.

It’s already clear that Big Data will make marketing better. How it helps manage risk, identify prospects, drive response—these are great things. But they aren’t marketing, and they can’t replace it. For enterprise to thrive, someone still has to observe a consumer, speculatively and with empathy. Someone still has to have an idea. Someone still has to take a chance. That’s marketing. Without those things, there is no competition anymore. There isn’t even any capitalism. What you’re left with is just a managed economy in drag.

Bruce Philp is a brand strategy consultant and author of Consumer Republic, winner of the 2012 National Business Book Award