“Mark” is a new weekly column dedicated to the intersection of marketing, business, design and culture.
A woman on a bus stares at her phone, beginning to mouth the words of a perky dance-pop song, “Was there something missing in my life until now?” As the lyrics continue, comes a response to her longing: “And then this vegan bakery came swiping across my screen.” Her eyes widen in wonder and a colorful dance number breaks out. “I felt a shock wave in my head,” she sings, “and a tingle in my spleen.”
No, it’s not a scene from the worst musical of all time. This is a very curious announcement that Meta, the social media giant, pushed recently announcing the benefits of . . . The advertisement. According to advertising data tracker iSpot.tv, “Good ideas are worth finding: a (slightly) life-changing story“, was recently the most-viewed TV spot of the week with over 500 million impressions for an estimated ad spend of $6 million.
Advertising The benefit of advertising seems a bit, well, meta. But Meta produced such an ad – as part of a campaign it launched last year – because it wants you to know that “personalized ads” are a very good thing.
It may seem confusing. Sheryl Sandberg’s announcement of her intention to leave the company formerly known as Facebook has once again drawn attention to her resounding success with targeted advertising. Sandberg took the expertise she had developed at Google around automated advertising products and helped Facebook build a system that relentlessly tracks your online behavior for the benefit of its business customers. It’s a controversial and somewhat scary legacy that you might assume Meta prefers to keep quiet. Instead, it showcased its prowess in understanding your needs and wants through its sophisticated monitoring of your online life.
To some extent, the ad is positioning itself as a celebration of small businesses and their unique offerings. But it really is how awesome it is that the Facebook and Instagram meta properties can make idiosyncratic products and services available to you, the end user, based on their uncanny knowledge of your preferences and traits. The result, according to the ad, is a living carnival of individuality and “appropriate” individual consumption options.
As a multicultural cast dances through the city’s hyper-colorful streets to this friendly dance-pop beat, we come across some Meta users who seem to benefit from personalized ads. It’s light and semi– ironic and a bit silly. Ad shoppers are hooking up with specialty clothing, nail care, and something called squid linguine. “Good ideas can be more than things we use…they have the power to show the world that we care about issues,” the ditty goes – a passage that leads a person to get an “eco-sponge” for wash the dishes (“maybe I should be holy?” sings the buyer).
Again, the vibe is meant to be wink and fun, but the message is pretty straightforward: Meta offers “a world where personalized ads help drive great ideas.” That’s how the song says it. Twice.
While Meta’s latest commercial began airing a few weeks before Sandberg’s announcement, it speaks directly to his legacy and all that threatens to smear it. Regulators and at least some consumers have soured on the privacy trampling of big tech. Not only is there potential legislative challenges to the targeted advertising practices of Meta/Facebook, but thwarting these practices have become an obvious selling point for some rival tech companies. The most striking example: Apple, which recently made its privacy-centric business for pushing back against Meta-style targeting with a spot titled “Your data is $old!“
In a nutshell, it depicts a typical tech user discovering that everything she does online is tracked, collected, and monetized. A cartoonish auctioneer replaces ad tech saying, “It’s not scary, it’s business!” Message: This is totally sinister. So, the triumphant moment centers around tapping “Ask app not to track” – which of course is a headache for Meta.
(Apple pushed this anti-tracking function for over a year, sometimes looking more like an activist than the world’s most valuable tech company: “You have become the productsays another of its ads.)
What’s happening here is a break from the more familiar style of Coke vs. Pepsi ad war, pitting two fundamentally similar products against each other. The competition here is between entirely different business models, with their distinct implications not just for customers (or users) but for society at large.
And really, it’s remarkable how directly Meta advertising engages this debate. Not only Sandberg, the architect of its targeted advertising strategy, onwards, but also the company has loudly declared a new focus on “the metaverse,” presumably involving some sort of revised business model that has yet to be articulated. Still, the ad is an open admission that, despite the pivot, meta advertising revenue was around $115 billion last year. Facebook and Instagram are advertising companies, period.
As a company, Meta is already would have tinkering with ad revenue strategies that rely less overtly on tracking prowess, such as a “basic ad product” that would rely on “only the simplest metrics, like engagement and video views.” In other words, something closer to the more “awareness” advertising of the old days of data tracking.
At the time, it was not uncommon to hear arguments that technology would help deliver ads that were not only more effective for businesses, but also more “relevant” for consumers. Admittedly, the first part of this argument seems to have turned out to be true, given the scale of Meta’s advertising business. It’s the second game that’s up for grabs, and so far Meta seems to be losing: he recently valued that Apple’s anti-tracking options will cost it $10 billion. Yet with its ads, Meta seems to be making the case for something akin to a post-private world, and that’s not an easy sell. But like privacy measures and regulations are being debated with increasing urgency in Congress, it is perhaps the most critical sales pitch the company has ever made.