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March 11, 2008
TV Is Not Going Anywhere, So We Might As Well Fix It

The effectiveness of television ads are declining, but as long as television keeps expanding, the ads themselves are going nowhere. Changing how TV ads are delivered can transform them from the waste of media they often seem to be into a relevant brand invitation.

Targeted advertising and interactivity can accomplish this by harnessing viewer input to trigger ad selection and subsequent communications. Herein lies the opportunity to finally break away from simple demographics and context and move towards marketing to complex individuals based on their multifaceted tastes and individual needs.

There are ways to know, or guess, who is watching a television and their preferences. While there are currently some privacy concerns, for the purpose of this column, it is only important to know that targeting is possible with existing technology.

I define "Targeted TV Advertising" as: Using gathered data, artificial intelligence and feedback from viewers to display messages viewers indicate to be relevant and predict the relevance of other messages.

Targeted Ad Selection

In addition to automatic profiling based on viewing habits, with a little interaction, viewers themselves can actively affect ad selection. For instance, while watching a TV spot, a viewer can give it a "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" by pressing a button on his remote. Like StumbleUpon for TV, over time the system will learn his likes and dislikes and adjust its ad service accordingly. This differs from current opt-in "press to play" ad systems because the ads are displayed inline and appear with or without user prompting. For the less privacy-conscious this can be augmented by filling out a preference questionnaire, thus ensuring the best possible matches for the viewer and the advertiser.

Some tangible benefits of filling out the questionnaire:

  • No tampon ads in a household of men.
  • Mortgage ads for those in the market for a new house.
  • Pet foods ads to people with pets, not for those without.
  • No non-kosher food ads for kosher families.


Targeted advertising largely solves the issue of relevance, but how do we extend our message and make it easier for the viewer to become a customer?

Interactivity and Message Extension

Acting upon information in a TV spot is hard. Not only is the ad itself competing for attention, so is the act of processing it, remembering it and acting on it at the appropriate time.

Responding to an ad can be made easier using the same remote control technology as above, additionally gathering data and increasing brand touch points for the advertiser. If a viewer sees a spot he wants more information about, he can click a button on his remote, and the brand will send him an email to peruse at his leisure. Or, to get more sophisticated, pressing a different button will send a brochure in the mail or a text message with a coupon to use at the local store. To those familiar with "direct response television" (DRTV), this extends those principles, but lowers the barrier to interact (pressing a button versus making a phone call) and increases the breadth of actions that can be performed automatically.

If an advertiser hooks these leads into their customer relationship management system (CRM), they have a self-engineered gold mine because not only do they know how many people saw their spot, they know who the people are and where they live, allowing all other marketing efforts to be more focused. When advertisers have better information, they can put out fewer, better communications with greater effect, nurturing more meaningful relationships with customers. Who would send out 100,000 cheap direct mail pieces with a low return rate when they could send out really impressive, sexy packages to people who watched their spot and liked their product?

In conclusion, targeted television advertising has two main strengths. The first is that it requires guesswork for an advertiser to pick an audience for a product, but the audience is rarely wrong when it chooses the product itself. Secondly, and more importantly, viewers will be treated as real people whose opinions matter, and their time and attention will be respected. As viewers and advertisers, let’s all hope that targeting comes to television soon.

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Dylan Thomas is a freelance art director based out of San Francisco and about to finish Miami Ad School. He reads everything he can and seems to spend more time in airports than anywhere else. This explains his unhealthy obsession with luggage, but his fetish for notebooks is another matter.

Dylan was recently a finalist on the advertising reality show, "Ad Fight" pitching a national campaign for OfficeMax.
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