Is the marriage of Big Data and advertising heading for an ‘uncanny valley’?

Marketing | Sectors   |   
Published March 6, 2014   |   

One of the major ways in which big data is currently used by marketers is to drive the targeting of online advertising to ensure it is delivering relevant messages to the right audiences at the right time. The scale of investment in online advertising is consistently increasing with, for example, ZenithOptimedia forecasting the internet will boost its share of the $532bn global ad market from 20.6% in 2013 to 26.6% in 2016.

However, questions are increasingly being asked about the efficacy of this medium. You don’t have to scratch too far to find evidence to suggest some fundamental challenges to the orthodoxy of online advertising. In a GfK / Guardian study we reported that 68% of UK online consumers find it creepy the way that brands currently use information held on them. And a very tangible manifestation of consumer disquiet is another recent GfK finding that 38% of consumers now use some form of ad blocking, mainly via using a software download but also through changing the settings on their browsing software.

We have also recently found evidence of an ‘uncanny valley’ for brands. The term ‘uncanny valley’ was first used in 1970 by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori, who noted that although we tend to warm to robots that have some human features we tend to be disconcerted by them if they start becoming too realistic. Our research has identified a similar phenomenon in relation to online advertising – initially consumers enjoy the personalisation or marketing communications, with steadily improving brand attachment as personalisation increases.

However, there appears then to be a line which is crossed where there is too much personalisation for consumers’ comfort and brand attachment rapidly declines, falling into an ‘uncanny valley’. This has to be a serious concern for advertisers who often assume more personalisation can only ever be a good thing. The early signs from our research clearly indicate that this is not necessarily the case.

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