A Case for an Oxymoron: Intelligent Radio Advertising

It is the fall of 1972, and I am a high school student in Northern Virginia. My father has given me a Heathkit tube radio he built in the 1950’s, and I use it to tune in 102.3 — one of the few “underground” FM stations playing progressive, indie rock and roll. The jock’s opening words are like a magic incantation to my young ears. “This is Cerphe coming to you from high atop the Triangle Towers. We’re sending out some tunes tonight for the truckers, the madhatters, the ships at sea and especially … (whisper) the ladies of the night.” Then came the music. Bonnie Raitt to Bessy Smith to Hound Dog Taylor. Hendrix. Zepplin. The Who. Sometimes Cerphe would play whole albums without interruption. It would all just flow. And the best part? Very few ads.

In those days, stations like WHFS were motivated by their passion for great music and not by finance. But it was not to last. The inexorable demands for money overtook WHFS and all stations like it, forcing them to become more commercial, improving their bottom lines, and ensuring their survival for decades. But the cure was also the poison, and the presence of excessive, intrusive, obnoxious and irrelevant advertisements is causing commercial radio’s slow but certain death. Music lovers like me are turning to internet music delivery services like Pandora, Spotify, and RadioIO, where the ads are fewer (or nonexistent if one wants to pay) and one can dial-in exactly the kind of music one wants to hear. I am thrilled. It’s like 1972 all over again — great music, well programmed, and light on ads. But like WHFS, it can’t last — advertisements must eventually become a bigger part of the programming mix if these services are to survive. That development, as it turns out, is good news.

We are by now all familiar with the somewhat creepy knowledge that companies like Facebook, Google, and Visa know all sorts of things about us, including where we go and what we buy, and use that data to present us with advertisements for things we are more likely to buy than not. Less familiar to us is an organization called the Network Advertising Initiative (NAI), a coalition of more than 90 online advertising companies, which has a one-button “opt-out” tool obligating member companies to voluntarily stop snooping and collecting data on you. But wait! Before you go running to NAI’s website to click that button, take a moment to consider where we are on the long road from ads that are excessive, intrusive, obnoxious and irrelevant, to ones that actually serve a useful purpose. Ads that serve a useful purpose? What, man? Have you gone mad? No.

I am first among those who despise advertising, which is precisely why I am rooting for the success of an emerging practice called “Audience Based Advertising”, a technology based technique that enables music delivery services to tailor ad campaigns precisely for me. The ads I see and hear are customized to my unique tastes and preferences and no one else’s. To do that, the advertisers must know me — hence the data collection on me. This practice has been going on for some time now with web based display ads (the kind you see on web pages), but it is slow to reach internet music delivery systems. The ads I hear there may not be excessive (yet), but they are still irrelevant.

For example, consider that as a man, the probability that I need to be exposed to ads for uniquely feminine products like bikini waxings is pretty close to zero, and yet I have been exposed to plenty of those. Not so in the future. Knowing that I am male and thus unlikely to be shopping for a bikini wax (unless I am shopping for my girlfriend), the advertiser will ensure I never get exposed to an ad for them. So far, so good.

But all sorts of complexities are sure to arise on the aforementioned long road to useful ads. There is the matter of privacy. Do I want my health insurance company knowing that I toked up on a hookah pipe last night? No. They will surely not understand that I am not a regular smoker and are likely to mismanage the information, raising my premiums. There is the matter of timeliness. “You can stop the car pitches now, thank you, because I bought one two months ago.” I am convinced, however, that these complexities will be worked out to our advantage. Audience Based Advertising, or Intelligent Advertising as I think of it, will be continually refined and updated, becoming more and more effective — more intelligent. But that progress will require our cooperation, and to cooperate we must first get over “the Facebook effect.”

I was naive when I joined Facebook. Maybe we all were. When it finally dawned on me that the company was using every tidbit of data from my profile and posts to turn me into a resource to be “mined”, like one of the human batteries from “The Matrix”, I was repulsed. The Facebook effect.There was a sense of betrayal, and then a lack of trust. I wanted to wear a tin-foil hat to keep Facebook from reading my brain waves.

But for Intelligent Advertising to work, a good amount of trust must exist between shopper and merchant before we shoppers will voluntarily offer intimate information about ourselves. Even then egregious violations of that privilege are sure to ensue. For a depiction of the dark potential of Intelligent Advertising, look no further than the freaky scene in the 2002 film “Minority Report,” where Tom Cruise’s character is aggressively pitched by 3D billboards trying to sell him a pair of jeans. “Hey, hey! Stop!” the billboard hollered at him as he ran by. “You look like a size 34.” Yikes!No thanks. To avoid that kind of intrusiveness, we shoppers must move past our distrust and become partners in the process of shaping how, when, where, and what kind of ads we get. And there are ways to do that.

Internet based music services, for example, offer me this incredibly nifty tool that makes me feel like the master of my universe: the thumbs down button. Don’t like a song? Press that button and the service actually apologizes for playing it and promises to never play it again. Whoa. I’m diggin’ the power here. How about extending that power to ads? If the ad is obnoxious, intrusive, or irrelevant — the hallmarks of most radio advertising — then I can give it the royal heave-ho out of the line-up with the click of a button. In the same way this “teaches” the better designed music services what songs I like and don’t like, the service will learn what ads and offers I like and don’t like. Marketers will get immediate feedback on the efficacy of their ad, and if it doesn’t work for me, they will quickly know. The result? Better, higher quality ads. Ads that don’t intrude or annoy, but rather inform and serve. Useful ads.

Over time, as my “content” delivery service gets to know me (note the name change from “music” delivery to useful “content” delivery), there will be no need to tap the thumbs down button — almost everything they deliver will be thumbs up. These services will have made the effort to get to know me, with my permission. They will have mined my data, with my permission. And I will want them to. The better they know me, the better the chances are that I will get useful content instead of banal crap. And if I do get banal crap I can use my thumbs down button and voila — never again — with an apology. Naive you say? Consider this — no advertiser wants to spend a nickel on you if you are not going to buy. So why do it? They would much prefer to target their ads.

There is one more important milestone on the long road to Intelligent Advertising — the ever critical paradigm shift. Today’s music delivery services offer to take away ads for a price, because they know we hate irrelevant and intrusive advertising. “Ad-free” to them means “Bad-free,” and they are right to think that way — for now. But as ads become more intelligent, more useful, music delivery services must shift their thinking 180 degrees. They might look to Costco or Sam’s Club, where we pay a membership fee to actually increase our exposure to goods and services. Why? Because those goods and services are generally of high quality and a good deal. They are useful, and we pay for the privilege of being exposed to them. The same will eventually be true of music delivery services, who must undergo this paradigm shift on their long road to transformation to content delivery services.

I waited decades for music delivery systems, formerly FM, now internet based, to get back to delivering the kind of quality programming I enjoyed on WHFS in the early 70’s. They finally did, and listening to music today is every bit as exciting as it was back in the day. The ads are still off-target, but there is a vision, a plan, for more intelligent, relevant advertising. It will get better, especially if we listeners take an active role. As my favorite guitar player, the great Jimi Hendrix, said, “In order to change the world, you have to get your head together first.” We will get it together with Intelligent, Audience Based Advertising, and the sooner the better.


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