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The Mind’s Effect on Itself: How Behavioral Targeting Reshapes Self-Perception

3 MINUTE READ | March 17, 2017

The Mind’s Effect on Itself: How Behavioral Targeting Reshapes Self-Perception

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Wes Lacson

Wes Lacson has written this article. More details coming soon.

Anyone with a strong working knowledge of the Internet is aware of behavioral targeting, and many people in digital advertising would say that they understand it. I certainly felt that I did. Any digital advertising agency should be familiar with the importance of such a significant breakthrough in marketing. By using our Internet browsing history and the social networks that we immerse ourselves in daily, companies are more aware than ever before about how their audiences interact with and react to the content they release. By acting based on that data, it is now truly within grasp to show the right ad to the right person at the right time, at a high percentage.

I thought, by understanding that, I understood the fundamentals of behavioral targeting. What I didn’t realize was that there is an in-grown corollary to behavioral targeting, something much subtler that goes together with the consumer insights that companies can glean. This particular finding was recently supported by a study conducted by Christopher Summers and his research team at the University of South Carolina.

The study, which was published in the Journal of Consumer Research and referenced in the Harvard Business Review, The Atlantic, and Gizmodo, posited that behavioral targeting can affect the way in which we perceive ourselves and the decisions we make in all areas of life, not just in purchasing decisions.

As a concrete example, Dr. Summers assigned participants a simple task: complete an online shopping trip. The participants were informed that the ads they were viewing were behaviorally targeted based on the items they viewed and the free-for-all browsing session that they were allotted for thirty minutes prior. One group was served organically-generated behavioral ads, while others were served ads for environmental agencies and nonprofits. At the end of the study, participants were asked to choose between two different speaker systems with the following descriptions:

  • Speaker 1: “Green, energy-free speaker crafted from sustainably sourced Colombian wood,” whereas in the control condition it was described as a “sleek, powerful speaker crafted from the hollow body of Colombian wood.”

  • Speaker 2: “sleek, powerful speaker crafted from the hollow body of Colombian wood.”

After controlling for the participants’ existing predispositions towards the environment, the study found that there was a 10% increase in preference for speaker 1 as opposed to speaker 2 among the group that was served the environmental agency ads. In short, self-perception itself was impacted simply through the serving of a different type of ad.

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The implications for this insight are wide-reaching for us as an ad agency, as well as for the marketing departments and client teams that we work for. It means that we should not only look at behavioral targeting as a means to drive conversions based on prior experience, but also as a path to influence the thinking patterns of consumers. Whether that comes in the form of driving interest in a new product line or simply nudging people into a frame of mind to promote greater brand-consumer fit, behavioral targeting can not only be the end result of consumer behavior, but also a starting point.

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