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The Hard Sell: When Targeted Ads Backfire


When does the consumer rebel against targeted advertising? Tpopova/Sergo/Michal Rojek/Thinkstock
When does the consumer rebel against targeted advertising? Tpopova/Sergo/Michal Rojek/Thinkstock

Last year, Kurt Carlson was picking up a prescription at the pharmacy when he noticed a comfortable looking leather ottoman in the waiting area. He wasn't in the market for an ottoman, but he was bored and stuck in line, so he pulled out his phone and typed "large brown leather ottoman" into Google to see how much one of those things costs.

"I clicked on the website of a furniture store that had some ottomans on it," says Carlson, "and now, a year later, ads for that website still show up on my phone. That annoys me enough that I'm never going to buy from that particular retailer."

Sound familiar? It's obvious that advertisers are using your search data and browsing history to target their sales pitches. But at what point do such blatant marketing efforts backfire?

It's Called Persuasion Knowledge

Carlson has some ideas. He's not, we should mention, just your average online ottoman shopper. He's a marketing professor at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business and director of the Georgetown Institute for Consumer Research. He says the biggest danger that advertisers face when courting consumers is something called persuasion knowledge.

When a consumer's persuasion knowledge is activated skepticism kicks in. And a skeptical consumer is an ad exec's worst nightmare.

"Persuasion knowledge is the consumer's understanding of the tricks and tactics that are used on them [by advertisers], because consumers themselves employ many of these same tactics in their everyday life," Carlson says. "Parents have to persuade their children to eat their vegetables. They have to persuade their spouse that it's a good idea to buy a new car. They have to persuade their boss to let them leave early on Friday. Consumers are practiced both in the act of persuading and being in environments where others are trying to persuade them."

For this reason, the most effective advertisements avoid potential triggers that would activate the consumer's persuasion knowledge. Instead, they talk straight to our lizard brain, stirring up primal emotions and serving basic needs. A good ad doesn't require deep analysis or even conscious thought, but still delivers a clear message: "You like food. Buy this food." or "You want power. Buy this big truck." Carlson and other consumer researchers call this level of thought "system one."

But then it happens. You see the ottoman ad for the third time, or you're a woman and you keep getting ads for men's razors. And you ask the fateful question, "What the ...?"

When Identity Marketing Backfires

"The minute a consumer starts that higher level of processing, they've entered 'system two' — a more analytical, more conscious thought process," says Carlson, who is also the co-author of "Contemporary Brand Management." "Once that system kicks in, that's where skepticism lives."

A team of marketing researchers lead by Amit Bhattacharjee, visiting assistant professor at Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business recently published a paper about this very phenomenon. It tests a popular marketing tactic called identity marketing, in which advertisers try to convince consumers that their brand identity is a good "fit" for the consumer's personal identity. As an example, the authors cite the classic Jif peanut butter pitch: "Choosy moms choose Jif," which carries the implicit message, "You care about giving your kids the best, and so do we."

But identity marketing can also backfire. It happens when advertisers too explicitly try to make the connection between brand and consumer identity. An example from the paper is this ad from DirecTV: "If you call yourself a sports fan, you gotta have DirecTV!"

"That seems like too much of an affront," says Carlson. "We're not friends. You're just a brand, and brands don't know me like that." System two clicks on and consumers are turned off.

Consumers are savvier than ever, and most are OK with the fact that various corporate entities are tracking their search and browsing history. But that doesn't mean they want it thrown in their face.

Catherine Tucker, management professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management co-authored a study showing that online consumers were fine with an ad clearly targeting the content of the page they're visiting. And they were also OK with a big obtrusive pop-up ad. But when a pop-up ad and a targeted banner ad were "piled on to each other," she wrote in an email, "consumers are very put off."