Of all people, it was Brad Parscale (Donald Trump’s 2016 digital adviser and 2020 campaign manager), who drew my attention to the fact that my understanding of television advertising was stuck in the 1950s. In his 2018 Frontline interview, Mr. Parscale defended the campaign’s use of Facebook to microtarget ads — delivering the right ad to the right person down to virtually an individual level. He downplayed the uniqueness of this targeting: “I mean, what’s addressable TV? Addressable TV is no different also. You can pick a TV commercial in this household different than the one next door.” Unfortunately, he is correct. Microtargeting, while not yet at the same level as made possible online, is coming to television. Rather than let this be, as Mr. Parscale intended, a defense of such practices on the internet, it should serve as a warning about the extent to which this personalization and fracturing is being normalized. Ellen Weintraub, head of the Federal Election Commission, has warned, “the microtargeting of political ads may be undermining the united character of our United States.” Despite Mr. Parscale’s suggestion that microtargeting is acceptable on Facebook because “everyone else is doing it”, addressable ads on television clearly need more scrutiny as well.
Traditionally, television advertising has relied on purchasing space on a specific program. Based on Nielsen ratings, which provide information about which age and gender groups are watching which television shows, advertisers purchase time during, say, The Walking Dead or Glee, depending on who they hope to target. Local broadcast stations, or local cable networks, can offer geographic based targeting. The set-top box changed this model. Set-top boxes, or cable boxes, collect second-by-second data on which channel the television is set to. This information is matched to the schedule, to determine what is being aired when. Set-top box data is aggregated and sold, or aggregated and stored, and allows for more specific breakdowns of which household is watching what. So, if an advertiser has determined that their audience enjoys watching NFL games, they can find out what other programs those viewers watch and advertise there as well. These are still purchased based on the program, although more data-informed, so if you’re like me, you can still picture the Mad Men style salesman calling up a network and placing his TV spots on certain programs if you want.
Building upon the capabilities enabled by the set-top box, TV ad placement has begun to look more like digital ad placement. In a very small nutshell for a complicated process, programmatic advertising is “a fully automated, end-to-end technology by which various types of audience based advertising can be bought and sold in real time, often involving an auction or bidding process.” Much as ads on websites are placed as the webpage is being created on each individual browser, programmatic advertising now also allows television advertisements to be placed on the fly, relying on a software program to line them up just in time to be served to the viewer. This makes possible addressable advertising. Relying on the same opt-out approach as many digital services, likely buried in the terms of service somewhere, addressable advertising “provides the opportunity for advertisers to buy audiences instead of programs… they determine which of the addressable-enabled households fit their target and serve tailored commercials to just those homes, reaching the target household regardless of what is being watched, when, and whether it is being watched live or in playback.” More succinctly, this “allows marketers to reach or suppress specific audiences down to a one-to-one household level.”
The data being used for this targeting is not just which television programs are being watched. When aggregated, set-top box data is combined with other data streams. Data brokers, corporations that buy and collect information about major life events, hobbies, interests, income, behavior, and whatever else they can find, harvest information from store loyalty card programs, credit card data, or publicly available information which can include Department of Motor Vehicle data or voting records. They then bundle and sell this information, largely for marketing purposes. Many descriptions of addressable TV note that after the set-top box is collected, there is a “data match”, during which they reconcile viewers with the data broker information about each household. Allison Metcalfe, GM of TV at data broker LiveRamp, assures us that their data is protected: “We apply anonymous identifiers, as well as various procedures and policies, to ensure that we put privacy first and that it doesn’t come at the expense of creating more personal, enjoyable advertising experiences.” (After all, no one wants to lose their more relevant “enjoyable advertising experiences” for the sake of privacy.) Based on this added information, they can locate “yogurt-loving moms”, “customers who bought a car six months ago”, “Ford owners [who] watched NFL games over the last two seasons”, “tech enthusiasts with $100K investable assets, “consumers who have sailed three or more times in the last three years”, “auto intenders with a minimum income of $75,000 and at least one child in the home”, and so on. It also allows advertisers to suppress certain households, excluding, perhaps, existing customers. As for credit cards, “make sure only your prospects receive that offer for a nice sign-up bonus” — only those selected will see certain offers, they will remain invisible to everyone else. As LiveRamp put it, “A world in which neighbors or commuters watch the same show but see different ads is coming into focus.”
Addressable TV advertising is a small but growing trend, indicative of television’s broader integration into digital capabilities. As television viewing spreads across multiple screens and devices — streaming on a computer; through internet-connected devices such as AppleTV, Amazon Fire TV, or Roku; watching a program long after it has aired — television advertising will follow. Addressable generally refers to cable or broadcast TV, whether watched live or saved for later, but certainly if a program has passed through an internet-connected device or is streamed, those ads can also be personalized. Addressable has yet to fully catch on, although in 2018 about half (74 million) of American households had addressable-enabled devices. Only AT&T, DirectTV and Dish Network offer true addressable as of earlier this year, but a coalition of Comcast, Charter and Cox, with their audience of about 80 million households (approximately the other half of the country), are working towards it. About 15% of television advertisers are reported to regularly include addressable television ads in their buys, and 35% have tried it. eMarketer forecast addressable ad spending to reach $3.3 billion by 2020. For now, these are small numbers compared to the $70 billion that is the entire television advertising market, but does not account for those placed on internet-connected devices or streaming, which also enable personalized ads, and the projected 2019 growth of 236% suggests continuing expansion . Addressable advertising is expected to grow. As some advertisers look at it, “addressable seems like a quick stop on the highway toward an entirely digitally-delivered television ecosystem.”
Television advertising is becoming increasingly integrated into the ecosystem of personalized media in other ways as well. As well as addressable ads, the involvement with data broker LiveRamp enables online retargeting. As Fourth Wall Media describes it:
“Using our ingestion, matching and audience tools, we can analyze an ad campaign, determine households who have been exposed to an ad, and use our frictionless partnership with LiveRamp to expand them in a look-alike audience, so you can retarget on digital and mobile platforms. Imagine being able to place digital ads in front of households who saw your TV spot last night.”
AT&T ran a campaign that delivered personalized ads by addressable TVs to their selected audience, while “simultaneously, digital ads were served to the same consumers by mapping digital devices to the target households.” It was reportedly very successful. Television advertising can no longer be ignored when concerns are raised about the privacy and personalization issues with online content.
At least one political marketer already offers addressable television advertising as a service. The company, 0ptimus, was founded in 2013 “with the mission of arming center-right political campaigns and advocacy groups with data-driven strategies”, and claims that these include “leading Presidential and Gubernatorial campaigns, Fortune 500 companies and non-profits around the globe.” 0ptimus offers a thorough explainer about how to use set-top box data for TV ad targeting that promises campaigns that “the data files contain up to second-by-second for each tuner that the vendor has matched for you.” Mr. Parscale mentioned how this could scale up: “Facebook Lookalike Audiences are pretty amazing… The TV channels will do that some, the addressable TV and some of them. But the Lookalike audience is one of the most powerful features of Facebook.” Lookalike audiences allows an advertiser to expand their targeting segment from the individuals already in their list to those whose data profiles are similar. Addressable TV offers the same ability to expand targeting to an audience similar to the one already identified. Television still does not operate at the micro-level of Facebook. Nonetheless, if political campaigns can serve particular ads to particular people and prevent them from reaching the televisions of others, our informational context will further fracture and divide.
A few years back, articles explored whether “the rich see a different internet than the poor” based on targeted advertising offers and pricing disparities. Discussions continue to question whether privacy and surveillance disproportionately target individuals with lower incomes. As addressable TV expands, or more television viewing is conducted through the internet, we risk the same divisions coming to television. As it becomes increasingly possible for advertisements to follow us from television to the internet and back, television becomes a part of the networked information environment that is increasingly tailored to each individual. As more and more of our informational context becomes connected and personalized, we become more susceptible to advertised messages, and increasingly lose a shared understanding of the world.
To be clear, none of this means that Facebook should be off the hook for microtargeting. Facebook ads still work very differently. We all can tell when there is a break for commercials on television. There is a clear division; it would be very difficult to confuse the advertisement as part of most programs. Facebook ads remain more integrated with, and harder to distinguish from, posts from family or friends in the News Feed (a design element criticized by even its own employees). Television also remains more strictly regulated in the U.S. by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which holds broadcasters responsible for the material aired on their stations, including advertisements. Rather, I hope to call attention to the creep of such personalization and microtargeting where we may not expect it. Even in what we still consider to be ‘traditional media’, personalization is becoming standard. Space and capabilities for personalization or “addressable” content on television is currently limited, but advertisers are seeking to expand for the sake of more accurate buys and better measurement of their effectiveness. Considering Mr. Parscale’s “everyone else is doing it” defense, the traditional “if everyone else jumped off a bridge, would you?” surely applies. We should call out and examine these processes in television advertising as well as on social media, not excuse one because it is also happening elsewhere.