Stay out of digital advertising’s ‘uncanny valley’


In computer graphics and robotics, the term “uncanny valley” describes the phenomenon whereby animated characters like Tom Hanks’ train conductor in The Polar Express look disturbing (even revolting) because they are almost human, but not quite.

Something similarly “creepy” can happen in any kind of targeted digital advertising.
How frequently may we employ retargeting to draw website visitors back to an abandoned shopping cart before the user feels stalked?  How much can a retailer reveal about what they know about their customers (See Target’s pregnant teen gaffe)?

Eschew personalization altogether and advertising sacrifices its efficiency.  More than that, we’ve all come to expect websites to greet us by name, remember what we like, and make recommendations to us.  As this kind of customization becomes the norm, our industry’s collective hope is that customized advertising is similarly accepted.  Sometimes we jump the gun. Individual advertisers as well as advertising platforms are under tremendous pressure to push the boundaries in integrating personal and social signals and sometimes trigger that revulsion from users (remember Facebook’s faceplant with Beacon?). As Mahender Nathan, VP for e-commerce and digital marketing at Godiva says in this NY Times piece, “If e-tailers become too familiar with users, they risk alienating them”.

Don’t like the Display Ads you’re seeing?  Change ’em.

Last week, Google’s Display Network gave its users the opportunity to dismiss or mute specific ads and customize what kind of ads they see.  As reported in SearchEngineLand, this was previously available on YouTube.

“We believe this early-look feature can bring benefits to the entire ecosystem: users have a way to control their experience and signal that they aren’t interested in certain ads,” wrote Michael Aiello, a Google product manager, on the Inside AdWords Blog. “Advertisers are no longer paying to show ads to people who aren’t interested; and publishers will receive better performing (and potentially more valuable) ads.”

Stay ahead of customer sentiment through transparency.

Nowadays, companies like Evidon and TrustE, as well as Google itself, now aspire to give consumers more control (or at least, the feeling of control) over ad targeting.  Of course, folks who mute or dismiss the personalized ads will still see ads, just not relevant ads.  If a user clicks through to preferences, it’s actually possible to specify exactly what kinds of ads they’d prefer to see.

A similar dynamic is playing out as Google develops its Siri-competitor, Google Now… will it be creepy or cool?