Have you ever read Fuck My Life? If you haven’t, you really should stop by at least once a month. It’s a continuous stream of everyday stories in which people share the shitty moments that ruined their day. The stories are often hilarious or eye-watering, sometimes both at the same time. A heavy sense of irony is essential.
It was in this mindset that I opened the site on my mobile phone this morning and saw this ad banner at the top of the page:
Seriously? Once I’ve steered myself clear of any deeply inappropriate jokes about lifeboat chasing lawyers I’m left with a profound bewilderment about how this ad ended up here. Somehow, a mobile search algorithm decided that:
the readers of Fuck My Life are the kind of people that go on cruises
that of those readers that do go on cruises, some of them were on a ship that held only 4,000 passengers
that of those 4,000 passengers enough of them speak English fluently enough to understand a site laden with sarcasm and local idioms
This completely overlooks that the passenger manifest of the Costa Concordia
was predominantly Italian, German and French. (For example, according to the Foreign Office the number of British passengers was only in the ‘tens’.) It also neglects that 70% of cruises are taken by over 40s. Whilst I wouldn’t want to pigeon hole the readers of FML I would imagine their audience is a tad younger than a cruise ship (think Vice magazine
not Saga magazine
There is an infinitesimally small chance that the people whom this ad is directed at would ever, ever see it. So why on earth display it? My technical friends would say that the cost of serving mobile ads is so cheap that you can afford to spam the entire internet in the hope that the tiniest percentage of people will click. I look at it from the other perspective. If you’re spraying shit over the entire internet, how will advertising ever evolve from something that’s destined to be ignored? To be nothing more than a source of pathetic disruption and hatred? Mobile advertising has the opportunity to be so much more. To be relevant and contextual – useful even.
You may say that I’ve chosen a very specific example above. I’ve chosen a site that has a lot of risqué user generated content and is therefore unable to attract top tier advertisers...
So let’s look at two examples from my life. These are both examples of iPhone apps that display ads within the app. I’ve chosen these because the act of downloading an app forms a self-selecting demographic, so therefore it should be possible to serve far more relevant ads than just the seemingly random ads on FML. I’ve also chosen these two apps because they're both aimed at gay men, and the value of the pink pound is valued worldwide at £350 billion. With that kind of economic power, you wouldn’t have thought that attracting advertising would be a problem.
The first example is from an application called Scruff. It’s a very successful dating app aimed at a very specific dating demographic: guys with facial hair. (Before you need to ask, yes, I both have facial hair and like guys with facial hair.) The users of Scruff have made a conscious decision to download the app and create a profile. They have self-selected themselves as being part of a particular demographic of gay men.
So, what ads are served within the app? Here’s an example:
. An advert for girls looking for guys. Yep. Even though this is app for gay men interested in facial hair, the advertising algorithm still thinks it’s possible that enough girls might have downloaded the app and will see this ad... You know, just on the off-chance...
The second example is also from the gay social networking world. If you thought Scruff was a targeted demographic, this is even more focused. An app called Growlr. It’s aimed at the hairier, more muscular or heavy-set gay man. Yep, bears. It’s a demographic that’s very inclusive – it’s not about body image but about being happy with yourself.
Here we go again:
An iAD for Lynx Excite
. The sun is more likely to start spinning in the opposite direction than a bear would start wearing Lynx deodorant. Not least because bears prefer to be more natural but mainly because the entire premise of Lynx advertising is around a product that supposedly helps men attracts women!
Scruff and Growlr are both apps where the advertiser should know their audience intimately. A self-selecting community of users: what better place is there to serve relevant advertising? And yet in both places the ads are deeply inappropriate.
You can say that to serve relevant ads the advertiser needs to know more about the person and more about the user’s location. (I would say that you’re half-way there with an app for a certain demographic.) Of course, maybe this is information that nobody would ever dream of trusting an advertiser with and we’re therefore stuck in an endless loop. A viscious arms race of us ignoring more ads as agencies try to find more disruptive ways to grab our attention.
I think advertising will fail. With a track record of serving up the ordure of the web, they don’t deserve any better. Unfortunately, we the user, do. And until advertisers start aiming to serve the best, not the inane, aiming to deliver value for for all of us rather than a margin of tiny percentage points, nothing is going to change.