Is it Possible to See the Same Ad Twice?
Heraclitus lived in the 5th century BC and has come to be known as the “dark philosopher”. Much of his life remains a mystery, and his work is often cryptic and misanthropic.
He gave up his inherited riches to live in the mountains and survived on a diet of herbs. He acquired a cult following for his fragmentary works, however, with his fans known as ‘Heracliteans’ — a sort of pre-Socratic Belieber, if you will.
So what can one of the great curmudgeons of antiquity teach us about advertising?
Well, during his years in the mountains observing nature, he wrote, “It is not possible to step into the same river twice.”
The implications here are myriad and we can interpret this in numerous ways, but the core message is simple: The river is constantly changing — and so are we.
The antinomy at the heart of this is of course that we consider the river to be one ‘thing’, one objective form. However, its only constant is change, and our subjective perception of it will be affected by its dynamic form, but also by the experiences that shape us as individuals.
Now let’s apply this to modern-day interactions between brands and consumers, and also the measurement frameworks we use to report on these interactions.
We are dealing with an emotive and irrational landscape, where people see something, it draws a reaction (happy, angry, sad, bored), and they are left with an impression of a brand/product. Perhaps they take an action and we report on that as a success or failure, perhaps they don’t and we have nothing to measure.
In our desire to target individuals with ever more accurate means, we then remarket to this same person if we can, perhaps using different creative. They may be on a different device, in a different location, or on a different social network. These are all things we can measure and monitor.
But what we don’t know is how they will perceive our ad, the context in which it will be seen, whether it is truly the right time to communicate our message to this individual. The person has changed, they are not seeing the same ad. But we lack the means to reflect this, so we target them until our frequency cap is met.
We then look at our reporting dashboards and we reverse-engineer our assessment of the campaign based on the metrics we have decided to monitor. We assume uniformity across our audience — a click is a click, no matter who it comes from or why they performed the action.
The only constant in our digital landscape is change, but we are reluctant to accept this — it undermines our rational system for defining and delivering ROI.
The digital era has offered us an almost utopian vision of a world where everything is measurable, and this is a very appealing illusion that we are keen to stick with.
However, this outcome-based way of thinking is hindering our ability to do the best work we possibly can. This is because, quite frankly, the measurement framework is not fit for purpose and it affects everything we do. It’s the best we have and it has value, but we should view our metrics (likes, shares, clicks, impressions) as indicators rather than gospel truth.
So how could this change? How could we arrive at a way of measuring ad campaigns that would satisfy even Heraclitus himself?
We are, admittedly, quite some distance from such a Herculean achievement, but there are tantalizing glimpses of the future contained within a recently granted Google patent.
When someone sees content, before they even ‘know’ in a conscious sense whether they like it, or whether they want to ‘like’ it in the Facebook sense, Google will have taken stock of the content’s impact. It has been displayed, the individual’s body has responded to the content, the ranking algorithm has taken the data into account. The conscious mind is bypassed, the onus is on the subconscious — on measuring the latter in a way we have always deemed impossible.
Thinking about reductive metrics isn’t going to cut it anymore; there’s no room for vanity metrics that mask underwhelming campaigns when we can measure satisfaction in such a sophisticated, accurate way.
This may be seen as a slightly unsettling development; however, this has always been the aim of advertising: to create an impulse, habit or emotion within our audience and encourage an action. In our haste to accept the promise of an entirely measurable world, many in the digital space have strayed from this path.
With the measurement technology we will have in future — be it in 12 months or 12 years — truly innovative and creative work that fulfills a user need will be rewarded, and campaigns that set out only to get clicks or impressions will fall short of meeting the criteria to satisfy meaningful metrics.
Perhaps then we will have an approach that is fit for purpose in an ecosystem where it is impossible to see the same ad twice.