Advertising in the Digital Age
by Luke Nearhood | published Sep. 24th, 2018
“The internet’s changed everything,” said Professor David Neumann from RIT's department of Communications, who specializes in advertising. “And certainly it’s changed advertising.”
Of course, advertising isn't anything new. In fact, advertising is quite old, explained Professor Mike Johansson, a Senior Lecturer in Communication at RIT who specializes in public relations and social media.
“The fact of the matter is that advertising has been around for probably a couple hundred years in the form we would recognize it today,” he said.
However, despite its age, the way we interface with advertising in both quantity, but more importantly in quality, has changed greatly since the advent of the internet. Gone are the days of static, purely informative ads, the likes of which is now only used for lawyers and real estate.
“The idea that advertising was somehow separate from the programs, or content, that’s really been blurred in the contemporary digital world,”said Jonathan Schroeder, the William A. Kern Professor in Communications at RIT. Schroeder specializes in branding, identity, media and visual culture.
According to Neumann, this blurring between advertising and content is part of what is known in the business as native advertising.
“So what native advertising is, is when the advertisement or persuasive message is just so embedded within the natural landscape of the media that you're observing, that you don’t really even see it as advertising," said Neumann.
It is evident how much more prevalent native advertising has become on a platform like Youtube. Even just a few years ago there was hardly any native advertising, yet today, anyone using Youtube at least semi-professionally has some form of sponsorship. It is important not to conflate advertisements delivered by a content creator as native advertisements. Although, the fact that such ads are typically read by the presenter adds to their credibility, moving them closer to native advertising than traditional advertisements.
"One thing that I might propose is that it's made us a little bit less analytic; we don’t think about the claims that ads make as much anymore,” explained Schroeder.
Whether or not the rise in native advertising has made consumers less critical of ads is difficult to measure. It is certainly no stretch to say people are less likely to think critically about the claims being made about a product when it is the voice of someone they trust making them. The merging of content and ads is in part the result of the decline in the effectiveness of traditional advertising, explained Johansson.
“Broadly speaking, people under 30 have gotten better at blocking out ads, or avoiding ads,” he said. Consumers are generally getting savvier — yet at the same time, advertisements still take considerable amounts of our attention away each day.
“Advertising, from the consumer’s point of view, is a game of whack-a-mole. Block ‘em one place, they pop up somewhere else,” said Johansson.
Ad blockers allow us to avoid many of the ads that once stole the attention of millions of broadcast viewers, but incentivize advertisers to create new and more effective means of creating and distributing ads.
“Most of the time when you put an ad in a newspaper you had really no way of knowing if that had made people walk through your door,” said Johansson. “But in the digital realm you can see where they clicked, how far they clicked into the process, whether they got all the way to making a purchase or not ... so it’s far more accurate in that way.”
This increased accuracy then allows advertisers to target ads at consumers. But in order to do so they need large amounts of data on user behavior, and individual users, which is where social media platforms come in. As they get paid based on the click-through rate, they are incentivized to provide such data.
"It’s good for the social network because the ads are going to people who are more likely to click, and therefore more clicks means more revenue for them," said Johansson. "It’s good for the consumer in the sense that I’m being served ads that are at least things I’m moderately interested in."
Although many of us have at least some level of technical awareness and know our online activity is being tracked, we do nothing or very little about it.
“We know it knows it,” said Neumann. “But there comes to a point where you just kind of acquiesce and say, 'Oh, that’s the way it is.' What am I gonna do about it, stop using the internet? Not gonna happen.”
Whether or not you feel that sacrificing some of your privacy is worth the convenience of targeted ads is in theory a decision you should be able to make. However, it has become increasingly difficult to avoid using social media in the modern world, as it is all but required to function in the increasingly online professional landscape. While there are ways to still use social media, and minimize how much data is collected on one's activities, which is a part of being a savvy consumer, and user of the internet. It may also be a good idea to at least skim the terms of service, and know what data you're giving away.
Perhaps more important than the way we are advertised to, is the way we now advertise ourselves, while we feed more data to the advertising machine. Everyday, many of us use social media to market ourselves and build our personal brand, both professionally and personally.
“I would say in some sense a lot of the intent of that is for social connection, but more and more a lot of that really has this logic of advertising, and so that I’m a little bit skeptical about,” said Schroeder. “The more the market, branding and the logic of advertising begins to affect us, it can take some of the human aspects away.”
Only more time and more data will tell if this self advertising is having a truly dehumanizing effect, and making us less socially capable as a population. Though, this self advertising then links back to the issue of native advertising. If social media is mostly an exercise in personal branding, where does the self begin, and where does the professional persona end?